Buried somewhere in all of the superbull, the booze, bad concerts and relentless commercial squeeze, there was a good football game between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers. But to be honest, it was an ancillary event. The NFL may want to rethink that strategy. It may also want to rethink its tendency to look like the Marie Antoinette of the sports world.
Everything you need to know about the future of the NFL could be seen in the gloriously decadent stadium that hosted this Super Bowl. As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell pointed out, “Quite frankly, that’s our stage.” It was the cleanest, safest, nicest stadium anyone has ever visited. It was also the most extravagant and economically stratified. It cost double what Jerry Jones said it would, and taxpayers financed about a quarter of it, yet its innermost marble interiors are totally inaccessible to the average fan.
A tipping point was reached with this Super Bowl, for me. It was the screwed-over anger of those 1,250 people without seats that did it. Those travel-weary, cash-whipped fans paid small fortunes to go to the game, only to discover their stubs were no good, because fire marshals declared some sections unsafe. All of a sudden the whole thing seemed offensive. It was just too much.
For absurdity, how about those four Navy F-18s flying over the stadium — with its retractable roof closed? Everybody inside could only see the planes on the stadium’s video screens. It was strictly a two-second beauty shot. Know what it cost taxpayers? I’ll tell you: $450,000. (The Navy justifies the expense by saying it’s good for recruiting.)
It’s not clear what the pain threshold of the average NFL fan is: Thirty-two owners digging relentless in our pockets haven’t found the bottom yet. But the NFL would be advised to recognize that it’s getting close. Those folks who found themselves without seats? Many were among the league’s most loyal paying customers, season ticket holders. Yet they were treated like afterthoughts, awarded half-built, jerry-rigged seats, folding chairs on auxiliary platforms. Which begs the question of what the “NFL fan experience” really means anymore. A day later the league did its best to make it up to them with offers of tickets to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis and Goodell called it “obviously a failure on our part.”
This Super Bowl was the future, and it set some lousy precedents. Every owner in the league wants a stadium like this one, and they will be pitching — maybe even extorting — their communities to help them build one. They want ever-larger luxury suites and bigger restaurants, and giant scoreboards and TVs, so they can replicate this Super Bowl, and sell standing room space in plazas and blocked views of a big screen for $200.
“Of the 100,000 and change tickets they sold, how many of those people actually had seats, and how many could actually see the field?” asks Neil deMause, a stadium-financing watchdog who co-authored the book, “Field of Schemes.” He adds: “That’s revolutionary if you can sell tickets to not actually watch the game. That’s a whole new ballgame. So obviously everybody is saying, ‘Hey, we want to get one of those.’ ”
It’s the shiny new toy in the league. New stadiums are such a priority for owners that it’s a critical piece of the labor negotiations taking place with the players’ union. A major reason owners resent the 60 percent cut of revenue that goes to players is because it’s not easy to finance stadium projects. They want a restructured agreement so “we can make the kinds of investments that grow this game,” Goodell says, bemoaning the fact that no new construction has started since 2006.
But how much growth does the league need? It already generates an estimated $8 billion, and owners get the first $1 billion off the top. If you really love the NFL — and I do — you have to wonder if the billionizing of the league is really good for it. The average cost of attending a game for a family of four is $412.64. At Cowboys Stadium, it’s a staggering $758.58. That’s what the league calls growth.
Don’t get me wrong: The Super Bowl can be electrifying for a community, and can be priceless in civic pride. Disclosure: I’m from Fort Worth, and I spent the week down there rooting for it to be a success. Cowboys Stadium is a gorgeous structure with some grand qualities, and Roger Staubach, who lobbied for the game, is a lovely guy.
But in the end, this Super Bowl taught me a lesson: Luxury can actually be debasing. The last great building binge in the NFL was from 1995 through 2003, when 21 stadiums were built or refurbished in order to create more luxury boxes, at cost of $6.4 billion. Know how much of that the public paid for? $4.4 billion. Why are we giving 32 rich guys that kind of money, just to prey on us at the box office and concessions? The Dallas deal should be the last of its kind.
When an owner grows tired of a facility and leaves, guess who picks up the tab? New Jersey still owes $110 million on the old Meadowlands home of the New York Giants and Jets, and when both teams moved to their new $1.6 billion, privately financed stadium, they got a huge tax break. According to the Wall Street Journal under their old agreement they paid $20 million a year in tax revenues; now they will pay only about $6 million a year. Know what New Jersey’s deficit is? I’ll tell you: $36 billion.
At its best the NFL is a deeply embedded piece of American culture, with an indissoluble bond with fans. But it’s grown far removed from the grass-roots recreation it started as, the competitive emblem of mill towns, and their enormous civic resilience. As fans, we share blame for being willing to pay anything for it. We’ve allowed league owners to cash in on American pride, and hunger for entertainment. We should insist they share American economic problems.