This past week a reader sent me an e-mail thanking me for several past posts discussing the rising economic inequality in the United States. He then asked, “Why don’t you write a post on the Skyboxification of America?” I fired back, “What a great term. Did you coin it?” He said that he did not but could not remember where he first heard it.
Intrigued, I dutifully Googled it and was soon heading to a local library. As best as I can tell, the term came from Michael J. Sandel, a government professor at Harvard. He outlines the concept in a thought provoking book entitled, WHAT MONEY CAN’T BUY, The Moral Limits of Markets (Center Point Publishing, 2012).
I grew up going to more sporting events than most as my father worked in the field. My brothers and I went to many games and frequently sat on the bench with a team. Some of my favorite memories were when I was 8-10 years old and we would go to afternoon games at Fenway Park. Tickets started at 75 cents for a bleacher seat and may have gone up to a high of $4.50. For $3.25 you could get a seat beside third base (maybe 7-12 rows back). That is where we always sat. You felt almost as if you were on the field as Fenway had and still has the smallest area of foul territory in the game. I remember one game vividly on a hot August day. The Red Sox played the Cleveland Indians. Behind us, a surgeon and his daughter were in a lively discussion with my Dad about a player’s physical rehab program (my father was a former coach and an athletic therapist). Next to me was a man who worked at the Necco Wafer candy company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Everyone was an enthusiastic fan and the discussion all around us was lively and fun. It was twi-night doubleheader and the man from Necco had to leave in the 2nd inning of game two to work the night shift at the Cambridge plant. He shook everyone’s hand and made a graceful exit. I told my Dad what a great job he had. Imagine working at a candy factory! My father smiled and said it might be fun for a summer job but, Don, you would not like it for a life’s work.
When I saw the term “Skyboxification” in print, that memory came flooding back to me. Going to a professional sporting event back then was almost a civic experience. All types of people went and interacted. They were all fans. Hope sprung eternal as we all rooted for the home team.
Over the years, times changed. Working in the media, I was privy to some incredible perks. Long line to enter Augusta National? Not for me. I had a VIP pass and even bought my swag in the member’s pro shop on occasion. Park blocks from a stadium? Nope. A special pass for a close in lot came with the complimentary tickets. It was amazing how quickly people got used to such perks. I took a young associate a few times to games and we sat in the Skybox courtesy of a regional sports channel. The next opening day I invited my whole team to a game. When I passed out the tickets, he said, “Boss, we sit in the stands?” Yes, we sat in the stands a few rows behind home plate. Somehow, he managed.
The Skybox first appeared, as far as I can determine, in the Houston Astrodome, in 1965. Then, America’s Team, The Dallas Cowboys, put some in Texas Stadium in 1970. Executives and key clients loved it and when many new stadia came on board in the 1990’s, Skyboxes were a key part of the design. When the new Yankee Stadium was built it was said that some 3,000 “normal” seats were eliminated to make room for the ultra-expensive Skyboxes. If one owned a team, you can hardly blame them. Skybox rental is very high and prices for food and drink within them are paralyzing. They have to be very lucrative for any franchise.
Sports, which was something that all kinds of Americans would gravitate to, are now demographically segregated perhaps more than any other form of entertainment. A Texas newspaper columnist some years back had the chutzpah to call Skyboxes “the sporting equivalent of gated communities.”
Each year we grow further and further apart from one another. A guy working at a candy plant can longer afford to go to major league sporting events let alone take his children with him. As inequality continues to soar in the United States regardless of the party in power, we find that the affluent live in different areas, their children go to different schools, and we work and shop in starkly different environments. Interaction with the shrinking middle class gets less and less and the affluent get more out of touch with the American mainstream.
Do read Professor Sandel’s book. I do not agree with all of that he says especially the limits that he would like to put on advertising. He did, however, make me think hard about certain issues in a unique way.
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