Separation Anxiety

Skyboxes: The Gated Communities of Sports

Whether they are at UT's football stadium or at the United Center in Chicago, skyboxes have become a fact of life in American culture. They played a prominent role at the Democratic and Republican conventions. During the Olympic Games in Atlanta, skyboxes at the track venue were renting for more than $100,000 per day.

Skyboxes have become the driving force behind a national stadium-building frenzy which is leading to bigger and ever more expensive venues. Over the next four years, investors and municipalities around the country will spend more than $5 billion on new sports venues, and in many of those venues, skyboxes are the primary rationale for their construction.

For instance, the Washington Redskins are building a new stadium in Maryland which will have 280 skyboxes. The team's current stadium, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in the District of Columbia, has none. Two stadiums are currently being built in the Miami area -- one for the NBA's Miami Heat and one for the NHL's Florida Panthers -- in part because the owners couldn't agree to share skybox revenues. The two new arenas are going up even though Miami Arena, which was built just eight years ago at a cost of $53 million, still carries $38 million in debt.

There is no question that for college and pro teams alike, skyboxes help raise revenue. But what does their proliferation say about our culture? Increasing numbers of Americans are living in gated communities, where armed guards, security fences, and alarm systems protect them from the outside world. Skyboxes are the sporting equivalent of gated communities. Available only to the wealthy, they allow occupants to segregate themselves from the rest of the public. Like those who live in gated communities, skybox tenants reside behind physical barriers which insulate them from their neighbors.

Edward Blakely, dean of the planning and development school at the University of Southern California, calls the skybox phenomenon "a creeping and disturbing trend. It's the privatization of public space," says Blakely, who is writing a book about gated communities for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. "It used to be the regular guy at the ballpark could sit next to the corporate CEO. Not any more," he said. "Fenway Park [home of the Boston Red Sox] is one of those levelling places. All the seats are hard. But whenever I go, I always have an experience with the crowd. People start talking to you. That's why people go. I think the team is almost secondary."

But Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, are considered anachronisms, and both teams are discussing the need for new venues. The trend toward skyboxes is occurring throughout the sports world. A skybox at Texas Stadium, which has more skyboxes than any other venue in America, can cost as much as $75,000 per year. At the Fleet Center in Boston, a skybox can cost $220,000 per year. The Richmond Braves, a Triple A baseball team in Richmond, Virginia, has 15 skyboxes, which lease for $25,000 per year. Texas International Raceway, now under construction north of Fort Worth, will have 205 skyboxes, which will lease for a minimum of $65,000 per year.

Obviously, skyboxes are not built for the average citizen, but it is often the average citizen who helps pay for them. According to a story published August 18 in the Sacramento Bee, some $3.9 billion in public debt has been issued for new sports venues since 1990.

Texas taxpayers are providing huge subsidies for privately owned sports ventures. The new Ballpark in Arlington, home of the Texas Rangers, cost $191 million; 70% of that is coming from a half-cent sales tax increase. The skyboxes at the stadium lease for as much as $200,000 per year. The owners of the Rangers keep all the ticket revenue, and the $7 million per year earned by the skyboxes. Texas Stadium, built in 1971 by the city of Irving and financed with bonds issued by the city, has 380 skyboxes, more than any other sports venue in America, and all skybox revenues go directly into the pocket of Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys.

At UT, school officials are saying that the skyboxes will be built with private donations. But they will be added to a stadium owned by the state, so the university is leasing state property (albeit a small piece of property) to citizens for their private use. The bonds that will be sold to finance construction of the skyboxes are being backed not by the skybox owners, but by the University of Texas.

The skybox owners get the skybox, and a healthy tax deduction. The school gets hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional revenue. And meanwhile, less well-heeled fans sit outside.

Wally Groff, the athletic director at Texas A&M, does not believe skyboxes are setting a bad precedent. "I think the good definitely outweighs the bad aspects of it," said Groff. "The good seats have always gone to the biggest contributors."

Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley who also acts as a consultant to several professional sports teams, agrees with Groff. He says the trend toward skyboxes is simply furthering the economic segregation that has long been present in college sports. "The people who give tremendous amounts of money to the school athletic program, those people have always been a privileged class in terms of these kinds of events and accommodations," he said. And Edwards says that the skyboxes tenants will not be representative of the players on the field. The boosters for college football are "overwhelmingly white males," says Edwards. "But if you go to the locker rooms, it looks like Ghana playing Nigeria."

Skyboxes and gated communities are proliferating at a time when studies are finding an increasing disparity in the earning power of American citizens. In July, the U.N. Development Programme reported that between 1975-1990, "the wealthiest 1% of the population increased its share of total assets from 20% to 36%."

According to the "State of Working America 1996-97," a report recently published by the Economic Policy Institute, the average CEO in 1978 earned about 60 times the pay of the average worker. By 1995, CEOs were making 173 times the wage of the average worker. Meanwhile, the EPI found that between 1989-1994, median family income fell by an average of $2,168. Thus, as the middle class finds its income stagnating, the wealthy are earning more and retreating to skyboxes and walled compounds.

In "Fortress America: Gated and Walled Communities in the United States," a paper written earlier this year for the Lincoln Institute, Blakely estimates that some four million Americans are now living in walled compounds.

Ted Turner, in an interview recently published in The New York Times, lamented the trend toward gated communities. "We're getting to be like Mexico and Brazil," said Turner, "with the rich living behind fences, like they do in Hollywood."

Robert Baade, an economics professor at Lake Forest (Illinois) College, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year about the problems associated with financing new sports stadiums. Like Blakely, he is disturbed by the skybox trend. "Stadiums have a finite amount of space," says Baade. "If you devote more and more seating to preferential customers, what do you have left for the ordinary public? I think it means sports spectating is becoming a far less democratic activity." n

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