Wealth and income inequality in the US are now at their most extreme since the 1920s, in the last years of the gilded age. Their best and simplest measure – the Gini curve – graphically reveals the wide and burgeoning spread between winners and losers in the US economy, which suffers from much worse inequality than most other developed countries. However the Field Guide is stepping back from its usual quantitative treatment of the issues, to take a look at one way in which inequality physically manifests itself. Numbers are great, but sometimes nothing quite tells the story like… a story.
The New York Islanders are about to begin their final season in the Nassau Coliseum – the venue that’s been the team’s home since its 1972 inception. The Coliseum is the NHL’s second-oldest venue, and indeed it’s lacking the whistles and bells of a modern facility. But the beauty of the Coliseum is that there isnt a bad seat in the house – because it was built before the term “luxury box” was even a part of the lexicon.
It used to be that people with cash to burn would buy the expensive seats down close to the ice, while working people could afford the cheap seats all the way at the top – which in the Coliseum are decent seats. Ordinary middle class people would, not surprisingly, sit in great seats wrapping around the middle.
Like a metaphor for the country as a whole, that middle band of seats has disappeared from the modern sports arena. In its place are luxury boxes. The seats down low for the rich are still there – but middle class seating is drastically reduced, if it still exists at all; and the nose-bleed seats are now much higher up and farther away. Middle class people are forced to choose between paying exorbitant sums for the seats down close, or sitting in crappy seats under the rafters, 150 feet above the game. The worst arenas include LA’s Staples Center (home to the Kings, Clippers and Lakers) and Dallas’ American Airlines Center (home to the Mavs and Stars), each with multiple tiers of luxury boxes that have entirely eliminated the best, moderately priced seats, and pushed the upper tier into the stratosphere.
This phenomenon isnt specific to hockey and basketball. Take a look at the space occupied by luxury boxes in any modern stadium: that’s middle-class real estate usurped by the wealthy. In baseball, the Yankees tore down the house that Ruth built, to build the new Yankee Stadium. What did $1.89 billion buy? 10% fewer seats – but twice as many luxury boxes as the old, iconic park. Plus there are now “club seats” near the field, available for a cool $1 million, on a five year lease. To add injury to injury, taxpayers will be picking up 60% of the total cost. Across town, the Mets reduced seating capacity by 20% when they moved from Shea to Citifield – to gain more, better luxury boxes and “club seats.” Taxpayers will again take a big hit on a venue that clearly wasnt built for their enjoyment.
Things look even worse in the NFL. Because income from luxury boxes is exempted from revenue sharing, big market NFL teams now have an even bigger incentive to build more of them, eliminating ordinary seats as they go. While the new Yankee Stadium has a conspicuous 68 luxury boxes, MetLife, home to the Jets and Giants, has 218; and the Cowboys’ new home has 300! One glance at designs for new stadiums in the works reveals that the worst is yet to come.
In the end, we couldnt resist throwing a few numbers out there. More images of American inequality on Friday, when the Field Guide returns.