Monday, April 06, 2009
Tech, Money & Sports: Detroit's Last Stand
It's fitting that on baseball's big Opening Day, one of the stories that looms large over today's big day is, obviously, the still-not-hit-the-bottom economic collapse that's shaking America to its foundations. While the American Southwest (especially three states -- California, Nevada and Arizona -- that have been hit hardest by the housing crisis) has a long way to climb out of this mess, no other state in the Union has been hit harder in the totality of this economic crisis than Michigan -- a formerly industry-heavy state staring down the once unthinkable, now very real possibility of fiscal insolvency.
But the real tragedy in this entire debacle is not just the state of Michigan. It's Detroit -- a city that, within the next 15 years, could effectively become a ghost town. This is a scenario that will have profound implications not just for the citizens of this moribund city, but of its sports franchises.
This being said, it's not as if this economic collapse isn't already having a major impact on Detroit's sports scene. This is just the beginning.
The full measure of how desperate the situation is when it comes to sports in Detroit really hit home today with the unsettling revelation that the Tigers have lost half of their 27,000 season ticket base in less than one season. With the auto industry hanging on for dear life and barely able to post monthly payrolls at this point, it's understandable that frills like baseball games are going to take a back seat in a city that posts a shocking 13 per cent unemployment rate. Never mind the fact the MLB has become overly reliant on ticket revenues due to poor planning and bad economic decisions; what does this all mean for the Tigers' bottom line?
Economics aside, this is not a happy time to be a professional sports fan in Detroit. Aside from the permanent success that is the Red Wings (more on that later), you don't need to be reminded anymore of the jaw-dropping disaster that is the Detroit Lions or the non-contending nature of the Detroit Pistons. Professional sports -- as has been argued by yours truly on this blog, no less -- are a form of escape from the harsh realities we all face everyday, but what happens when the malaise in your 'real life' ends up in the sports world too?
(Aside: oh, right. Well, at least there's growth here).
In terms of background, it's important to understand why Detroit in particular is in the condition it is. For the city of Detroit proper, this economic collapse and automotive crisis have only helped to speed up an urban decline that has been ongoing since the 1970's. As the surrounding suburbs of Detroit have actually flourished as more families migrated out of the city to escape growing crime rates (or at least, the perception of growing crimes rates, as well as a certain unspoken topic in Detroit's less-than-pretty recent history) , the city's overwhelming dependency on the Big Three automakers has created a perfect storm for a metro area that is analogous to a donut: economically diverse, low crime rates and successful on the suburban fringes and a hollowed out urban mess at the centre. While Detroit has been encouraging new forms of economic growth -- Information Technology and Biotechnology to name a few -- the city of Detroit proper has, in recent years, been forced to go to two options that no economically healthy city would dare touch as primary sources of city revenue: legalized casinos and heavy duty promotion of tourism. I don't know about you, but since when would you ever go to a city now known more for this rundown, detritus-filled public image than this nostalgia-fueled one?
While it's generally verboten to talk about this in 'post-racial America' -- a strange, very false point of pride many American commentators have used in the Age of Obama -- and I don't want to bite off more than I can chew here, but it's nearly impossible to not view all this distressing economic and sports world problems through the prism of race. White flight to these suburban zones aside, there's a real sense that in spite of a post-racial President and the fact no one from any nationality is truly safe in America now in light of this economic collapse, it's hard to ignore how race and racism in America remains very much alive. It's not spoken about often enough, but it's something to ponder when it comes to both the economic and sports decline of Detroit.
Sports is a window into a lot more than just fun and games. As I've said here before, it's a business too, and the business is not healthy in Detroit.
In spite of the fact sports is ultimately about money in the end, the pro sports franchise is a community bond that very few public works projects, art galleries or museums enjoy. It's one of the few places where everyone of all walks of life (sorry, but if you believe an art gallery is where 'all walks of life' go, you haven't spent time at the Art Gallery of Ontario recently) go and enjoy themselves. Detroit can ill afford to lose these institutions. It's a clear sign, once a pro sports team leaves, that something profound and truly tangible has been lost.
One interesting final, somewhat uplifting point: in spite of pro sports' troubles in Detroit, college basketball is doing surprisingly well. There's the news that tonight, at the cavernous Ford Field (talk about sad irony), the underdog University of Michigan State will square off for the NCAA national title against the favoured North Carolina Tar Heels.
It's fitting that Michigan is the underdog. After all, the state and the city of Detroit have been underdogs many times. Right now, both of them are staring down odds of survival that are even at best right now.
Let's hope they beat the odds again.