The Team Heard Round the World
I once watched a Cincinnati Bengals wild-card matchup on my phone in Auckland, New Zealand. It was a terrible idea. Not because of my phone or the huge time difference, but because my team managed to fall apart in an apocalyptically terrible fashion.
Now thinking about it, it’s kind of incredible that I could watch that very stupid game in Auckland, a city more than 8,000 miles and a day’s worth of flights away from Cincinnati, my hometown. Because of several factors (including Congress, but I’ll get to that), many American professional sports teams have been seemingly nationalized, not in the traditional economic sense (in which a private business or entity is taken over by the state — though some people propose doing just that!) but culturally.
Take the Green Bay Packers, which Forbes values at about $3 billion. It’s one of the world’s most famous and valuable sports franchises, despite being in a city with a population just 20,000 or so over the capacity of its stadium, Lambeau Field.
And the Packers are in good company: Forbes ranked 26 N.F.L. teams as among the 50 most valuable sports franchises on Earth. Some are in major American cities, but others, like the Carolina Panthers (based in Charlotte, North Carolina), aren’t.
People’s ties to sports teams, of course, are complex. I’m a Bengals fan because I grew up in Cincinnati, but others might find themselves in Paul Brown Stadium because of a particular player or, heck, even the jersey colors, for all I know.
But once a fandom is created — whether for the Dallas Cowboys or the Kansas City Chiefs or the Las Vegas Raiders — it must be sustained. And that largely happens through the media.
In 1961, Congress passed the Sports Broadcasting Act, which exempted the N.F.L. and other professional sports leagues from antitrust regulations (because, the argument went, sports franchises are partners within a league, not necessarily financial competitors with one another in the traditional sense). That enabled the N.F.L. to negotiate a television contract for the league itself and spread its television revenue equally among all teams in the league, helping to ensure that a team in a smaller market won’t serve as a permanent underclass to teams in New York or Los Angeles.
This revenue sharing model has been successful. In 2019, N.F.L. television revenue amounted to $9.5 billion, about $300 million per team. That money, according to a Sportico interview with Packers C.E.O. Mark Murphy, makes up about two-thirds of the revenue his franchise earns in a year. Earlier this year, the N.F.L. inked an 11-year television deal worth about $110 billion with ESPN/ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and Amazon, meaning that now more than ever N.F.L. teams exist as truly national franchises, with fans from across the country and around the world.
But if nationalization has been great for the N.F.L., it has been very bad for my other passion: American politics. As detailed in Daniel J. Hopkins’s 2018 book, “The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized,” state and local politics have increasingly taken on national issues and even national tones.
Earlier this summer, Kansas Republicans attacked the state’s Democratic governor for purportedly not taking border security seriously, despite Topeka being slightly closer to the U.S. border with Canada than it is to the Mexican border. (I assume, of course, that that’s not the border of which they spoke.) Local and state-level politicians often take actions aimed more at garnering national attention than on the concerns of the citizens who put them in office — for example, by signing quixotic and arguably unconstitutional legislation intended to prevent social media companies from moderating as they see fit, as Florida demonstrated.
Like the N.F.L., their reason for doing so is deeply enmeshed in the media ecosystem — a thoroughly national media environment, to be specific, in which people often choose a network based on their political perspectives rather than where they live. As local news outlets decline in number, a few once-local newspapers have become national and international powerhouses (like The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times).
But the nationalization of politics is a problem for America and for Americans. In many major cities, fewer than 15 percent of Americans participate in local elections that determine how, when and why their tax dollars are spent. And now even those local elections are viewed in national terms, as the Kansas example demonstrates.
A candidate may have wanted to run for office to fix a bad road or get a corrupt politician out of office, but her win is often cast as either a victory for national Democrats or national Republicans, a rebuke to Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Every election has become the most important election, the election that turns the political tides or transforms the national stage.
But local elections aren’t supposed to transform the national stage. There’s no playoff run for state or local elections, no cross-country competitions, no need for every politician to make a national play. There is the basic idea underlying federalism: that some places are run differently than other places, and that’s fine. Decisions voted on by residents of Reno, Nevada, should be decisions that make sense to Nevadans, not decisions that have to make sense to me, because I don’t live there. The idea that every Democratic or Republican city or state would need to perform politics in the same way as every other city or state that shared their party in power is an idea that doesn’t make sense if you’ve ever been to places as different as Seattle or Columbus or Miami.
The nationalization of sports has enabled me to watch my favorite teams wherever I live or visit, and once left me infuriated on the steps of a shopping center on Ponsonby Road in Auckland about a game taking place across the world. But the nationalization of politics is enabling our worst group instincts. Politics isn’t sports. A “team victory” doesn’t exist. And while the Cincinnati Bengals may have to play games in Los Angeles, Houston or, God forbid, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati’s (and Ohio’s) politicians don’t. And they should stop trying.
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