Sports Arenas and Social Capital

Source: Vancouver Sun

The City of Edmonton has published a paper to support its push for a new downtown arena. The arena district is expected to revitalize Edmonton’s downtown and is in the midst of sorting out who pays for what and how much.

This paper supports the idea of a downtown arena and uses the recent development in Los Angeles, Columbus and Indianapolis as example of successful projects. Dr. Rosentraub talks about the importance of sports to a city and why a downtown location can be beneficial to its residents and business community.

Dr. Rosentraub’s brings up the idea of social capital and how sports and sports facilities can play an integral role in its development. According to his paper:

Sports are..part of the social capital of society through their role as socializing institutions that increase stability and as tool to underscore the political values and strength of a society (Wilson, 1994; Rosentraub, 1997; Andrews, 2004). Lefebrve (1991, 1996) has concluded that places within a city the encourage identification with a group facilitate the ability of individuals to build relationships that enhance identities and reduce the stress of isolation that can be endemic in large urban societies.

He mentions the Oilers run to the 2006 Stanley Cup finals as an example of the city coming together, but it had more to do with a winning team than anything else. So I’ll agree that professional sports does increase the social capital of a city. But how does an arena have a similar impact?

According to Nan Lin (2002), social capital is “capital captured through social relations” and is “seen as a social asset by virtue of actors’ connections and access to resources in the network or group of which they are members”. It’s developed by building and maintaining social ties to those within the group and those outside of the group.

According to Putnam (2000), there are two types of social capital. The first is bonding capital, which deals with strengthening the relationships in a specific group in a network. Fans, being the driving force behind professional sports, play a big part in the bonding capital. They engage with the game and other fans in online communities, as well as physical spaces other than the arena. Fans being what they are will find their own space to connect and develop social capital with one another regardless of the arena’s location. Oiler fans in Phoenix, for example, will not be impacted by the arena but will contribute to Edmonton’s social capital.

Bridging capital, the second type of social capital, pertains to the external entities and developing contact with them. This is where hockey meets the rest of the world in the form of industry, government and the rest of the community. A physical arena in downtown would enhance the bridging capital with a presence around the other entities, but there’s no guarantees it would have an impact, especially if the Oilers continue to lose every year.

I would argue that social capital generated by professional sports has more to do with the team’s success than the actual arena and its location. Both the bridging capital and bonding capital is influenced by a successful team rather than the arena location. Locating it in downtown would physically connect it to other groups in the city (ie. industry, education, government), but it’s a team success that will lead to connections. Professional sports itself, is made up of the teams, the managers/owners, sports media and fans, and will develop social capital on its own since it is fan driven.

If the Oilers are concerned with building social capital in Edmonton, they need to turn the franchise into a winner. The team has been awful for the past eighteen years with a history of bloated contracts, average scouting, poor player development and bad decisions by management. Claiming that they face the same challenges that forced the Jets and the Nordiques out of Winnipeg and Quebec City is a stretch, as explained by Tyler Dellow. I like the idea of a downtown arena, but disagree with these claims from both the City of Edmonton and the Katz Group.

For more discussion on the Edmonton arena, check out the Edmonton Journal’s Storify.

Lin, N. (2001). Social Capital: A Theory of Social Structure and Action. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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