Why the Pens matter

When I was in Pittsburgh this weekend, I picked up a copy of the City Paper, which contains this nice column by Jody Diperna, in which she sets out to explain why it’s important to her, and to the city, that the Pens are not moving. I like this column because it reflects some of what I’ve thought, but struggled to put into words, about why I’m a sports fan:

But maybe there’s a bit more to it than that. Maybe the most important reason we should rejoice that the Penguins are staying is this: They provide another arena, as it were, for us to feel connected to each other.

Were the Pittsburgh Opera to pack up its librettos and go, it would be a huge loss for all of us. It would be one less option, and that diminishes the quality of life for all members of the community. Sure, we need jobs, roads and schools, but just as much we crave something else to sustain us: the arts, a sense of community, something bigger than each of us alone.

Sports franchises, in addition to adding options, give us just that. Whether you think hockey is frivolous, or you wonder what all the screaming is about at the Benedum, having those outlets is an absolute good.

As I noted in this post, most of the arguments that posit public funding of arenas or stadiums as an engine of economic development just don’t stand up to scrutiny. At most, they’re neutral overall and maybe help revitalize one area of a city (which might be a valid end in itself), but in most cases they’re monetarily a net loser for the funding government, because they just shift money around locally rather than attracting much new money. And well, as a native Cincinnatian who has watched the denouement of the Bengals’ stadium debacle unfolding for a decade, my initial reaction to sports franchises seeking public money tends to be skeptical.

I have always said, though, that if more franchises seeking these public investments framed their arguments not in terms of economics, but rather the nebulous cultural and social value they bring to the inhabitants of a city, I’d be far more receptive to them. As a certified public policy wonk, I probably shouldn’t be saying this out loud, but to me that’s an argument I could probably even vote for in the right circumstances (I voted against the Bengals and Reds tax increase, btw…and although I wasn’t in Columbus when they voted on public funding of the arena, I probably would have voted against that). Because, as Diperna argues in the passage quoted above, it is a public good for people in a city to have something that binds them.

Lord knows I have a whole series of cultural, social, aesthetic and political sensibilities that tend to place me at odds with the great mass of my fellows. But even a contrarian like me occasionally likes to feel in complete solidarity with others. That’s why it’s so pleasurable when the Blue Jackets score a goal at Nationwide and everyone stands up to do the “We’re gonna beat the shit out of you” chant. It’s not just that I like the Blue Jackets and like to see them score goals. It’s a shared moment between me and 18,000 other Central Ohioans — place of residence, religion, race, politics, taste in music or books be damned.

I’ve used a similar argument to explain to skeptical friends why I’ve gotten into Buckeye football. I enjoy watching the games, sure, but there’s something that’s just really cool about going out to run errands the morning of a game and seeing everyone in their scarlet and grey wear and feeling that bond. I happened to be driving to Syracuse, New York, on the day of the big OSU-Michigan game last fall, and every time I stopped for a snack or coffee or bathroom, even all the way into New York, I’d see people similarly outfitted in OSU clothing and we’d hail each other and share a brief “Go Bucks.” It’s corny, sure, but it’s also nice.

Sport, especially of the pro variety, is big business. I realize that, and I realize that owners and players and general managers and coaches and leagues all make decisions based on cold-blooded cost-benefit analyses of the sort that almost led the Pens to Kansas City. And as fans, we often have to accept that and think in those terms ourselves, even when our hearts say otherwise. Same thing when we’re asked to vote on funding some new pro sports complex.

And yet…when the red light flashes and everyone stands up to cheer and just for a moment we’re all bound together in our joy and our support for the team, just remember that sport is about that, too.


3 responses to “Why the Pens matter

  1. I can’t say I’m a fan of the Steelers but I always liked that the Pittsburgh team colors matched each others. Not that it amounts to much but it’s a little touch that I’ve appreciated.

  2. Sarah,

    Very well put. Sorry I missed this one earlier in the week.


  3. Jody diPerna, Pittsburgh City Paper

    Thanks for posting this. I love your thoughts at the end of your entry. While I’m not a fan of OSU football, I totally get what you’re saying. Nothing compares to living in the City of Pittsburgh when the Steelers are on a playoff run – the entire city is decked out in black and gold, everybody’s friendly, it lifts the whole town, crappy weather or other intangibles be damned. It’s big business, sure. But it’s more than that, too, and it’s easy for sports writers to look down their noses at the exuberance of the fans.

    As for me, the NFL draft is tomorrow, we’re getting into the heart of baseball season, and I’m already looking forward to the next hockey season. Go Pens.

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