August 14, 2014

The "No pro sports" test of cities with low status-striving and long-term stability

Playing sports is good for the body and mind, especially for our sense of social connection. Watching sports can solidify communal bonds if it's mostly a local phenomenon -- local players, local rivalries, local stakes. There's a danger with the mass media, however, that spectator sports can transform into epic, winner-take-all battles between superpowers that the entire nation feels a misplaced emotional investment in.

This form of idolatry also requires a climate of worshiping competitiveness, which is likely why we didn't see such behavior from the '30s through the '60s, despite the well established mass media of daily newspapers, radio, and television, all of them providing sports coverage.

Back in 1960, when the Pirates won the World Series in dramatic fashion, folks who lived in the greater Pittsburgh region didn't collapse to the ground with tears streaming down their cheeks, as though this were a sign that their lives finally had meaning, and could now rest assured. They felt cheerful and excited, not lifted up into the Rapture. And Bill Mazeroski, whose 9th-inning home run in game 7 won the Series, was remembered as a local legend -- not as a god who would conquer outside sports teams for the benefit of the Yinzer tribe at home.

Not until the Me Generation in the middle of the '70s did spectator sports slowly begin turning into such a, well, spectacle. Any particular upwardly mobile Boomer was not going to win a major sports event -- but they could affiliate with a team that stood a good shot. Everyone realized that you couldn't enhance your status through display of your personal athleticism, but through being a rabid committed fan of a strong team. Hence, who won the Super Bowl became as important as who won the Presidential election.

This new turn toward individual competitiveness, rather than fitting in with the community, led to the erosion of traditional religious denominations, just as it led to the reaction of "yawn, losers are boring" when it came to the home team. Religious denomination and sports fandom used to be "ascribed" -- something you were more or less born into, by growing up in one community rather than another. After the Me Generation broke from these shackles in the pursuit of ever-increasing status levels, religious and sports following became "achieved" -- something that you actively committed to, after making a choice among alternatives.

Still, not all places across the country -- not even all major metropolitan regions -- have taken the plunge into the gladiatorial arena with equal enthusiasm. If our age's myriad status contests are all variations on the same theme, then we can look at just one of them to gain enough insight into the big picture.

Luckily, Wikipedia already has a list of American metro areas by how many pro sports teams they host. In the table, you can sort them by clicking on the "B4" column heading, which says how many teams the city has in the four major sports leagues -- football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. I'm weighting them in that order, based on how much fervor they generate among the American public, with hockey not counting for our purposes.

Note that any city that has a pro baseball team also has a pro team for either or both of the two other major sports, so we can ignore baseball and focus only on those that have just football, just basketball, or perhaps none at all.

So, which major cities are less obsessed with status contests than the norm?

Portland only has one major team, but it's in basketball, and the team has been around for awhile. Fellow hipster mecca for Western Whitopians, Salt Lake City, also has an NBA team that's been there for decades. A few other cities back toward the heart of flyover country, such as Oklahoma City and Memphis, have very recent basketball teams, but what about cities with no teams whatsoever?

Among major metro areas, only Columbus, OH, and Raleigh, NC, have no pro teams for football, basketball, or baseball. Both are recent entrants into pro hockey, but only hardcore hockey fans would know that. I've visited Columbus many times since they joined the NHL in 2000, and I've never heard anyone talk about the Blue Jackets. I'm guessing the reaction has been similar to the Hurricanes in Raleigh-Durham, although they probably found some fair-weather fans when they won the Stanley Cup in '06. Columbus also hosts a recent pro soccer team (aren't they all recent?), but that can't carry much weight in the overall assessment of sports obsession.

Both areas do have passionate fans of local college sports, of course. However, the fact that the Duke-Carolina rivalry is so intense among neighbors makes the sports culture there seem more like the Hatfields and the McCoys, jockeying for status at the neighborhood level. Buckeye football in the Columbus area ignites as much passion among fans, but it is all directed toward a real out-group (Michigan), rather than a close neighbor from the in-group.

I'm going to call this one in favor of Columbus, whose (relatively) minimal level of status-striving is even more striking when you consider that the metro area population is 50% larger than Raleigh-Durham (and ranks 36th in the nation), which ought to tilt it toward wanting a piece of the action in big-city contests.

I grew up in a suburb of Columbus during elementary school, and no matter how many times I visit back in the intervening 20-odd years, I've been struck by how (relatively) resistant the area has been to hipster / striver colonization. Not that the neighborhood mall hasn't been converted into a lifestyle center with a Whole Foods anchor and a nearby Peet's Coffee shop. And not that downtown looks as unpretentious as it did back in the '80s, when it served as the all-American setting for Family Ties.

But it's still remarkable how few hipsters you see preening around town, how relatively unobtrusive the faggot presence makes itself, and how plain-looking the customers are dressed even at trendy hot-spots like the Mongolian and Brazilian barbecue restaurants. Most decent-sized mom-and-pop grocers have long gone out of business, but Huffman's Market, across the street from my elementary school, is still drawing loyal customers despite the nearby Whole Foods. In that same shopping center, there is a real Midcentury diner (Chef-O-Nette) that has continued to pull a crowd since 1955, the local residents seeing no point in a pretentious, over-the-top fake '50s diner like you find in much of the rest of the country.

Does Columbus simply benefit from being located in Ohio / the Midwest rather than North Carolina / the Southeast? Somewhat, but not really. Columbus actually is distinct from the surrounding region in never having jumped on the status-striving bandwagons of one age or another, chanting we're #1 at ____! Nearby Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh are all victims of the Rust Belt -- they all grew way too fast and specialized way too much in out-competing the other big cities, back in last heyday of competitiveness during the Gilded Age.

Columbus never drank the Kool-Aid about growing as big as possible, as fast as possible, and specializing as much as possible in some grand get-rich-quick scheme, whether it was manufacturing or high tech. As a result, it was never over-built, did not fall victim to the Rust Belt collapse, and right up through the current recession it has fared far better than the rest of Ohio and nearby metro areas.

Not surprisingly, the three big metro areas nearby also show a greater obsession with pro sports. Cleveland has teams in all of the big three leagues, while Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have football and baseball teams. (Pittsburgh also has a hockey team, though that's less important.)

And, strange as it sounds to link hipsters with pro sports fans, those other areas are much greater targets of hipster colonization. Cleveland, and the broader region including Akron, has long been home to arty bands such as Devo and the Waitresses, as well as Chryssie Hynde from the Pretenders. Pittsburgh has become a local mecca for hipsters -- was it the ironic tribute in the movie Wonder Boys that drew everyone's attention? (Or its sincere portrayal in My So-Called Life?) I can't say about Cincinnati for sure, but my sense is that it isn't quite as bad there (from what I hear / don't hear). Nearby Dayton is fairly hipster-free and pro sports-free, but it's much smaller.

Transient cultural one-uppers, just as well as folks who derive much of their group identity from affiliating with a pro sports team that is made up of outsider mercenaries, reflect a profound lack of communal bonds that stretch back into the past and will grow on into the future. The relative absence of such groups is a sign of a healthy, self-sustaining city. Looking into the sociology of folk culture not only helps us understand our history, it points us toward better choices regarding the future.


  1. Justin Millar8/14/14, 5:42 AM

    An interesting fact about Columbus is that it is the largest city in the United States with no passenger rail whatsoever. No light rail, no subways, no Amtrak connection.

    Light rail projects are notoriously a sign of either desperation or an "ambitious" (i.e. vainglorious) government, and they are usually failures (look at Detroit's preposterous "People Mover" system.)

    Columbus used to have a reputation for being relatively conservative politically. That's pretty surprising for a city built around government jobs and higher education.

  2. Like your blog. Pro sports allow conversation when the community is weakened to the point that all they can connect on is sports. Striving is annoying but a pro sports team in a mid sized city can put that city on the map.

  3. I was also going to add that all this conference jumping by the College teams is striving. Nebraska would rather be associated with Michigan or Ohio State then Kansas State though KSU seems like a more natural fit. The team I follow left a conference where I could, in theory, drive to an away game for a conference that is all flying all the time. The cities are bigger so I guess that is better. Amazing how the fans eat this up. Our College will make more money they say but they never show me the check that they receive. Just had to vent but the snobbery of these schools floating around so they can appear more prestigious(no one is floating into the Ivy league) seems ridiculous.

  4. There are a fair number of hipsters in the Cincinnati area, but I doubt it's as overwhelming as places like Portland. And having also lived in the Carolinas, the Hurricanes were hardly talked about at all. Also, the Sacramento Kings used to play in Cincinnati. Dayton is much smaller and is basically in Cincy's orbit.

    I always loved college sports because much of Georgia Tech's team was made up of fellow Georgians, but now college athletics are falling prey to money and competitive imbalances. How can schools like GT keep up with a school like Alabama post-integration?

    The Green Bay Packers are an obsession with all of my Wisconsin-bred family. The games there are somewhat akin to a college atmosphere. But I sometimes feel too much weight is given to these games. They can bring the community together though.

  5. Pittsburgh seems to have fared better than most Rust Belt cities. I suppose it's been a few years since I last visited family there, but that's in accordance with what I read about it.

  6. Pittsburgh's recovery is pretty recent. In the '70s and '80s, it may have been relatively less devastated than other Rust Belt cities, but was still in steep decline. And the recovery has not spread to nearby satellite urban areas like Wheeling, WV, perhaps the most depressing place in the country to visit. My mom's side of the family is from those parts, and it only looks worse and worse when we visit.

    Pittsburgh also has a small black population, comparable to Columbus (around 25-30%), unlike other Rust Belt victims like Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, and so on. Higher quality workforce and citizenry, plus less tension and distrust caused by diversity.

    Healthy, self-sustaining cities cannot support very large populations of blacks or Mexicans. What's the cut-off? Based on Columbus and Pittsburgh, it might be as high as 30%, although perhaps more like 20-25%. Once you're pushing into the 40% and above range, fuhgeddaboutit.

    Cities with large black/Mexican populations only managed to "stay competitive" for the blink of an eye, on the historical time scale, due to the short-sighted bandwagon effect. Jobs are just there for the pickin' in the auto industry in Detroit -- well, until that tiny little industry goes into a slump or bust, for whatever reasons. Now what? Send all the blacks back to the Deep South? Lots of luck with that.

    Far-sighted citizens aren't going to make a city where there are jobs-a-plenty, get 'em while they're hot, etc. It takes a long time to build up a healthy city. Places where jobs are flying off the shelves are clearly in a bubble phase. Boomtowns are future ghost towns.

  7. "I always loved college sports because much of Georgia Tech's team was made up of fellow Georgians, but now college athletics are falling prey to money and competitive imbalances."

    It's absurd to try deriving local group identity from cheering on an entire "team" of out-of-state players-for-hire. Our band of foreign mercenaries can beat up your band of foreign mercenaries. Zippity doo-dah.

    All it shows is who has more money, or at least who's willing to spend more. I think that's why pro sports, and now even college sports, primarily appeals to Silents and Boomers. Their status contests are more directly about wealth, power, and influence.

    Gen X and Millennials are more into lifestyle contests (especially about food and consumer electronics), since the arena of wealth-and-power contests has long been saturated, and the incumbents aren't leaving.

    Our contests are still phony, though, regarding how "local" the local foodie scene is. Our Mexican transplants run awesomer food trucks than your Mexican transplants. BFD.

  8. "Just had to vent but the snobbery of these schools floating around so they can appear more prestigious(no one is floating into the Ivy league) seems ridiculous."

    Right, it's like the spread of PR touting some college as "The Harvard of ____." Like, the Harvard of Schenectady.

    Soon the college football teams will be bragging about how they are the Ohio State of Kansas, completely unaware of how disloyal and pandering that sounds. But like you said, if the fans eat it up, then there it goes.

  9. "Light rail projects are notoriously a sign of either desperation or an "ambitious" (i.e. vainglorious) government, and they are usually failures (look at Detroit's preposterous "People Mover" system.)"

    Most of the country has a vague view of Mormons and Utah as a stuffy, backward population that stresses modesty over attention-seeking. But they host a team in the NBA, hosted the Winter Olympics, vicariously host the Sundance film festival, draw hipsters and especially faggots from across the Mountain Time Zone and beyond, and all the children have fake striver names like Bryleigh and Grayson.

    So naturally they just had to buy the urban fashion accessory du jour, a light rail system, too. How well is it doing, was it even necessary, and where are cuts being made to pay for it? From a fairly sympathetic article:

    "[Utah Transit Authority] is doing a great job of providing mass transit opportunities, but where are the riders? Utah Stories tried to contact UTA to get figures on ridership and ridership estimates, but our calls and emails were not returned. We found results in a Journal of Public Transportation study comparing Salt Lake transit to Dallas, Portland, Sacramento and San Diego. In terms of light rail ridership miles, Salt Lake placed second to last, in bus ridership miles Salt Lake came in last. We also looked at UTA budgets and found that in 2011 passenger revenue was at $39,693,756 compared to sales tax supplementary revenue of $178,560,993, making UTA $138 million from breaking even. But unlike the railways of the past, since UTA is under state ownership and control, breaking even or becoming profitable isn’t the goal...

    "In order to properly fund light rail and FrontRunner projects, bus routes have been cut back or eliminated and night and weekend service has been cut. If encouraging people to use mass transit is one of the aims, then maintaining bus service should be a priority. There are more residents who have easy access to a bus stop than those that live close to a Trax station."

    Good ol' COTA in the Columbus region gets by just fine with only buses. But since they don't have to sink so much money into a rail system, they have very good bus service, all the way out into the suburbs.

    Hopefully they'll continue to be hold-outs. Even if they succumb, it will have been after much skepticism, rather than diving into the pool of Kool-Aid head-first.

    Light rail is about the most difficult form of public transit to police against free-riding. No one can be so clueless to not realize that. Hence, city planners and citizen boosters alike are cynically willing to accept all that parasitism of the system, just to prove that their city is awesomer than those cities that have crappier light rail service.

    It's an attempt to signal your status through the "handicap principle" -- our rail system is so robust that we can have 30% of riders not paying, and still come out healthy! Well, until the whole thing crumbles into ruins, which is where they're all headed. Heavy rail, or whatever it's called, is less vulnerable because they employ the ancient, Luddite technology of turnstiles.

  10. "Columbus used to have a reputation for being relatively conservative politically. That's pretty surprising for a city built around government jobs and higher education."

    Despite being the state capital, the local economy is pretty diverse today -- relatively speaking, everywhere has more and more jobs paid for directly or indirectly through the government -- and always has been. There's still a good deal of farmland (less than before, of course), a Budweiser brewery, and other former staples of the Midwest, along with medical research, finance, hospitality, and so on -- all at much smaller stakes than in cities that aim for superstar status, though.

    Here's an overview of the Columbus economy from the Cleveland Fed, pointing out how much healthier it has been compared to the wider region:

  11. "It's absurd to try deriving local group identity from cheering on an entire "team" of out-of-state players-for-hire. Our band of foreign mercenaries can beat up your band of foreign mercenaries. Zippity doo-dah."

    That's pretty much how I feel about it. I'll never stop watching, but it's not quite as integral to my being and day-to-day life as it is now.

    Speaking of light rail, Cincinnati just had a big fight about installing a streetcar system. I can't see much use for it honestly, but local hipsters are all for it, of course. In fact, they touted Portland as a case for what Cincinnati could be. Maybe Cincinnati will be the new hipster

  12. Columbus' pretensions might have gotten off the ground if Woody Hayes hadn't punched that opposing player in the Orange Bowl, thereby losing his mojo. I think they've been ashamed ever since. Same thing with Bloomington, IN. Despite the championships, Bobby Knight made them a national joke, especially when the President of the uni. told everyone Knight ran the place. I think you're wrong about the '70's Me generation as it applies to sports worship. I'm an employment lawyer, and what I've noticed is how utterly powerless employees have become since the late '80's. (There was a short period there from about '81-86 where employers were on their heels, but they recovered big time). Probably the phenomenon of sports over-worship is a compensation for powerlessness in the workplace and the overall economy.

  13. Philadelphia fans are notorious for being intense sports fans. Philly must be one of the most status-driven cities.

  14. The book 'Major League Losers' about how the wealthy owners of big league monopolies have taken advantage of cities to get free stadiums, tax breaks, and subsidies left me so angry I could barely keep reading. And since then things have only gotten worse.

  15. I only know about Chicago, but the food trucks here generally aren't run by Mexicans. My sample could be unrepresentative because it can seem like half of them are fucking cupcake food trucks rather than actual lunch.

  16. I've always said that if there's a Utopia in the 21st century, it's a suburb of Columbus. There's a sense of balance there -- at least away from the OSU area. Quality of life all over Ohio is outstanding.

  17. This is off-topic, but I recently came across Matthias Stork's discussion of "chaos cinema" (as well as some interesting responses to it). You've discussed shifts in filmmaking over time before, most typically how they synch with cycles of violence. Stork however places the division point around 2001 (or at least those are the earliest examples I recalll him highlighting). Stork is however German, and thus might not be attuned to the same things an American would be.

  18. As we know, the zeitgeist changed from 2001-2005, or around there. that might be what Stork is picking up on.

  19. Except Stork thinks what began in 2001 only strengthened since then, rather than sputtering out after 2005.

  20. Columbus benefits from being the state capital and from OSU's presence.


  21. "Except Stork thinks what began in 2001 only strengthened since then, rather than sputtering out after 2005."

    The rate of substance abuse began declining in 2001 and has been declining since then, at least in America. Not sure if the substance abuse rate comes with its own set of cultural phenomena, as the crime rate.

  22. to clarify, the use of illegal drugs and cigarettes has been declining since 2001, not necessarily "abuse"

  23. As a Brit, I'm struck by two things about US sports:

    1) How tedious and unwatchable they are as spectator sports.
    2) Jow they are dominated by Africans to an extent that you just don't get with the more civilised Euro sports like football, cricket and tennis.

    You Yanks are fast becoming a nation of cuckolds. You couldn't design two sports more suitable to mindless brute African strength than gridiron and b-ball if you tried. Hey Mr Black, here's my daughter, do what you want with her if it helps y'all get two extra baskets next game.

  24. off-topic, but I have often wondered how the use of illegal drugs impacted the culture. "Face to Face" used the decline of drugs as proof of the Millenials' tame nature - the first Millenials turned 13 in 2001, as drug and cigarette use began its decline. the 90s were increasing drug use, and '90s culture seems quite distinct from what's going on now.

  25. You Yanks are fast becoming a nation of cuckolds. You couldn't design two sports more suitable to mindless brute African strength than gridiron and b-ball if you tried. Hey Mr Black, here's my daughter, do what you want with her if it helps y'all get two extra baskets next game.

    Black domination of basketball has long since become self-perpetuating. Football too, though to a lesser extent.
    Let's say you have a son of 10 or 11 who is athletically inclined and really likes basketball. No matter how good he might be at it, you would be well-advised to steer him into another sport, because as things get more advanced there will be less and less room for non-black players in basketball. I don't mean just the NBA, which hardly anyone reaches, but college, the better high school teams, and many youth amateur leagues.
    I get the idea that lacrosse is getting an influx of young white athletes who don't think that there's a place for them in basketball or football.


  26. This is why I can't stand the Seahawks. Does Seattle even have a football tradition? I think it's the perfect example of what you're talking about.

  27. Portland also has the Portland Timbers. They outdraw the Trailblazers since joining MLS a few years ago; they were in the USL (lower division soccer) for over a decade before that and were a revival of the original Portland Timbers of the NASL going back to 1975. The Portland Timbers dominate the sports scene in Portland now and it's a heavily hipster thing.

    Likewise in Seattle where the Sounders draw huge crowds (it's a Cascadia thing: hipsters, craft beer, good coffee, the usual artisan foodie stuff, and soccer) but of course Seattle has lots of other pro sports teams. Salt Lake has had an MLS soccer team for about a decade now, it is not just an NBA town. Orlando is another NBA only town that will have an MLS team next year. Soccer is catching on in the young demographic and has been for quite some time.

    If you live in areas where there is no local soccer team or where it is poorly managed/poorly promoted (ie, Colombus, New England, etc) you would assume that soccer was a very minority sport but go to places like Portland, Seattle, or even Kansas City or Salt Lake and you will come away with a different opinion.

    And that's just talking MLS; the US audience for international soccer is huge but doesn't invoke themes of local pride like having a local team does. Yes, even though they are mercenaries (college sports teams are mercenaries too; you'd have to go down to the high school level to avoid that, and not even then in some places).


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