Main Street: Sports 'entertainment'

Rich Wandschneider

I watched my first pro basketball game ever in Portland last Friday - from a skybox! In a sense, it was a rich man's version of watching a high school football game in Joseph. You move around, visit with friends, and run out for a cup of coffee - or have one delivered.

The skybox itself is a small efficiency apartment: bathroom; living room with a kitchenette/wet bar; a couple of chairs and a counter with a few stools looking out on the arena. In the case of our skybox, 14 stadium seats - two rows of seven - lay directly in front of the glass fronted box, slightly overhanging the regular seating below. We moved back and forth from seats to snack bar, game to conversation. Two small children colored on the floor. The older one made a "Beat the Heat" sign to tape to the glass, where a TV camera across the way might catch it.

I know from reading the sports pages that the skyboxes are a crucial part of the economics of modern professional sports. And that the nine year leases on Blazer boxes are sold at $50,000 - $200,000 per year. (Our hosts explained that the package includes 14 tickets to all Rose Garden events: the Eagles, Paul McCartney, circuses, whatever.) I assume that the half court boxes are the higher priced; ours was well behind one of the baskets, and our host confided that he occasionally bought court side or front-stage seats for special events.

The big controversy in Portland right now is a bunch of box leases coming up for renewal and a letter from auto dealer Ron Tonkin stating disapproval of the deportment of players and the actions of General Manager Bob Whitsit. The concern is that Tonkin and others might not renew their skybox leases.

Tonkin's letter appeared on the sports page of the Oregonian, and a number of caustic followers are making fun of the "jailblazers" - alluding to players' troubles with drugs, domestic violence, and the law - and calling for changes. The most cynical commentators believe that winning games will erase the current bad press and community feelings. Our sky box host thinks that zillionaire Paul Allen really doesn't care about fans' attitudes - or even their continued support of the team - as long as he wins a championship.

I guess you could argue that it's really a trumped up edition of what happens in high school athletics: carping about coaches and playing time; about players who break rules or don't put out as much effort as they might; about discipline and team "chemistry" and just how important winning really is.

In fact, from the high vantage point of a skybox at a Blazer game, the players could be high school sized - or smaller. There is no way to really measure, unless you check comparative heights on the giant TV screen that hangs from the rafters. Or, assuming that the baskets are at the same 10 feet that we know from high school games, your mind can translate the ease and frequency with which the ball is dunked into feet and inches of player height.

I bumped into old Wallowa County neighbor and workmate Anne Bell in downtown Portland the next day, and started to tell her my skybox story. She told me that she was staying at the Benson Hotel, where there were a lot of very large young men she assumed to be on a visiting basketball team. Anne said that for the first time she thought about how awkward it must be to go through life that large, and how comforting it must be to be on a team of peers playing a game where tall is the norm.

For 7'3" Arvidas Sabonis of Lithuania, playing basketball in America allows him to look someone - a lot of someones - in the eye.

Even from the skybox, you can tell that most of the players are black, and that most of the fans in the seating below you are white. The few white players are mostly eastern European.

Quite frankly, it is all somewhat eerie. Here we are in a skybox leased by a very pleasant young man who has made a lot of money in the Internet business, and plunked down a chunk of it to watch ball games and Paul McCartney, and to entertain his friends - in our case friends of friends. Although one can never tell from looking, my guess is that the young man was not a basketball player himself. You don't have to be a basketball player to enjoy the game, but a real fan would not want to watch from the stratosphere. Would he?

An economic package which makes a living room in the sky with a limited view of the game itself the key to the bottom line of a sporting business is strange. In fact the whole picture, the one that includes the opening light show introductions; flashing and changing advertisements on scoreboards and tier dividers; the Blazer dancers in their skimpy uniforms; the hugeness, the blackness and east European names of the players; the whiteness of the crowd; the real fans who pay big dollars for seats with a view and shout or cry with the winning and losing of the team; the business and civic interests who express concern over the social gaffes and legal problems of 24 year-old millionaires who often started life at the other end of the economic chain; Paul Allen's open wallet and giant need for some kind of sports championship; the black ballplayers on playgrounds and in colleges across the country and the third world giants from China and Uzbekistan jockeying for one of the few spots in the NBA; and the nouveau riche aspiring to skyboxes - the whole picture is crazy.

And the cliche of Rome and the Gladiators on a global scale is too easy. It's just a game. Just entertainment. Isn't it?

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