There Goes the Neighborhood: CenturyLink Field and the Transformation of Seattle’s SoDo Neighborhood

View of Century Link Field North Entrance. The four-disc art installation was intended to add an element of culture and diversity. It is titled “Earth Dialogue” and was designed by Bob Haozous. Photo: Helen Morgan Parmett
In the latest installment in our Deep Dives series, Helen Morgan Parmett and Kate Ranachan explore the sports-centered redevelopment and rebranding of Seattle's SoDo neighborhood.

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“McOmber, J. M. Group of landowners plans urban playground for south of downtown Seattle. The Seattle Times,February 7, 2003.) Like the stadiums, Motley Fool Million Acres reviews state that this kind of transformation of the neighborhood would require substantial city investment from taxpayers that…”

While attending the 2014 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Seattle, we – unintentionally – booked a hotel next to CenturyLink Field. Wandering around the stadium itself and the surrounding neighborhood, the complex and multi-dimensional relationship between sports, space, and urban renewal in the current moment quickly became apparent. Further, experiencing this highly mediated space first hand while attending a conference on media drove home the significance of the ways in which sports stadiums exist as media spaces, and thus in the ways in which contemporary media might be understood to implicate the urban. Notably, we are currently in the midst of an intense period of stadium building. In the National Football League alone, twenty-two new stadiums have been built since 1992. Coinciding with this construction boom, an increasingly expansive and expensive sports media market has grown, with NFL broadcasting rights as the crown jewel (the current broadcasting deal split between Fox, NBC and CBS is worth $27 billion over 10 years). In a turbulent media environment, sports rights have come to be seen as a safe investment,((Although, this may be changing, with recent reports debating the decline of ESPN and declining NFL viewership.)) both for media/telecommunications companies searching for steady audiences, and for cities hoping to cash in on both the attention that a successful sports team brings and the ancillary economies (bars, restaurants and new condo construction) that develop around new stadiums.

We contend that the stadium sits at the center of this confluence of media industries and urban development as an increasingly critical site of media and spatial production and city branding. The stadium makes televising the game possible, and it is this mediated version of the stadium (including the fans within its walls) that is broadcasted internationally, giving both the team and the city in which it is located presence on a global scale. Stadiums like CenturyLink Field are therefore uniquely situated as both media sites, given the increased incorporation of media elements like the Jumbotron and multiple television screens throughout the concourses, and as sites of media production, since broadcasting the game would not be possible without somewhere to play. Thus, stadiums become a crucial site for producing the city as a unique cultural space with a strong communal identity that can be broadcast and sold globally. CenturyLink Field and the push for re-development in the adjacent SoDo neighborhood in Seattle, we argue, exemplify the growing efforts of cities to use stadium-building projects as opportunities for urban renewal and city branding, constituting a particular kind of Media/Sports-Space that warrants more attention.((Couldry, Nick, and Anna McCarthy. MediaSpace: Place, Scale, and Culture in a Media Age. London; New York: Routledge, 2004.))

In the immaterial value fans attach to sports teams and stadiums, city boosters see potential material economic benefits for the overall city brand. Stadiums and stadium districts are thus used as forms of cultural regeneration and as part of larger urban and neighborhood branding campaigns.((Eckstein, Rick, and Kevin Delaney. “New Sports Stadiums, Community Self-Esteem, and Community Collective Conscience.” Journal of Sport & Social Issues 26, no. 3 (August 1, 2002): 235–47. Sze, Julie. “Sports and Environmental Justice: ‘Games’ of Race, Place, Nostalgia, and Power in Neoliberal New York City.” Journal of Sport & Social Issues 33, no. 2 (May 1, 2009): 111–29. Spirou, Costas. “Cultural Policy and the Dynamics of Stadium Development.” Sport in Society 13, no. 10 (December 2010): 1423–37.)) Claims to the potentiality in the immaterial and affective values of stadiums and stadium districts have particular purchase in the post-industrial “experience” economy, where those aspects of life and culture that hitherto seemed “immeasurable” have been subsumed into a market rationality. The new wave of stadium building both reflects and helps to usher in post-industrial shifts to this economy, i.e. one that is rooted in information, service, and communication. As cities continue to grapple with disinvestment in manufacturing and industrial uses of space, as well as the increasing expectations that cities must become entrepreneurs of themselves to compete on a global scale, culture operates as the key site in which cities aim to diversify their economies and render their brands unique and marketable.

Such an effort is evident in Seattle’s “stadium district,” the site of both Safeco and CenturyLink Fields, where the Mariners (baseball) and Seahawks/Sounders (football/soccer) play, respectively. The neighborhood is also the site of a proposed new arena to bring in an NBA and NHL team. The stadiums are located in the city’s SoDo neighborhood, a name that originally referred to the area “South of the Kingdome,” the former home of the Mariners. (Since the implosion of the Kingdome, the neighborhood has been rechristened as “South Downtown.”) SoDo is primarily an industrial neighborhood that services the port and manufacturing industries. Despite the fact that the area remains primarily industrial, the neighborhood has become the subject of urban renewal efforts to utilize the cultural realm of sport as a means to transition the area from an industrial center to a “cultural, entertainment, and retail” destination. Such efforts are reflected in the use of SoDo rather than South Downtown, a nod to the upwardly mobile, loft-style living and art galleries of New York City’s SoHo neighborhood.

City efforts to utilize culture as an economic and social generator are not new; as Sharon Zukin contends, it was primarily during the 1980s and 1990s that cities got into the “business of culture.”((Zukin, Sharon. The Cultures of Cities. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995: 2.)) Much attention has been paid to the role of film and television (including studios and cinemas but also of production more generally) in urban transformations, including in Seattle. As James Lyons notes, mainstream film and television representations of Seattle in the 1990s, such as the popular TV sitcom Frasier and the film Sleepless in Seattle, played a crucial role in rebranding and marketing the city as a hip and modern city (and, especially, as an alternative to the negative representations at the time of “failing” cities like LA and New York).((Lyons, James. Selling Seattle: Representing Contemporary Urban America. London: Wallflower, 2004.)) But since the 1990s and continuing through today, stadiums, as key cultural and mediated and mediating sites, have been a particularly important role in these efforts as well, both in Seattle as well as elsewhere. Cities utilize stadium sites as a means of cultural regeneration, urban renewal, and urban branding efforts in which the expectation is that stadiums can produce experiences (both in person and on screen) that will distinguish a city as unique, distinct, and as a result, attractive to tourists and investors.

A central characteristic of contemporary stadium building is the return of stadiums to downtown locations, which are deemed more authentic than the suburbs. The desire to return stadiums to their “natural” urban homes reflects a nostalgia for a kinder, gentler (pre-white flight) experience of the urban environment. Indeed, Seattle, to a certain extent, has long played the foil to American urban centers like Los Angeles and New York since the 1990s, where media portrayed Seattle as a sanitized (and white) image of urbanism that quelled anxieties over urbanism’s links to blackness and poverty.((ibid.)) And, likewise, its stadiums continue to play this role; as Cory Hillman argues more generally, they are designed with the intent of “’civilizing’ urban space” by prioritizing “consumption as foundationally democratic.”((Hillman, Cory. “The sports mall of America: Sports and the rhetorical construction of the citizen-consumer.” PhD dissertation, Bowling Green State University, 2012: 59, 72.)) Missing from celebrations lauding the return of these stadiums to their rightful urban locations are the ways in which the stadium displaces urban communities (often people of color) in order build the hip bars and restaurants that will attract a white, upwardly mobile middle class audience.

Crucially, then, the communal identity that stadiums serve to construct through their mediated and mediating practices serves to flatten socio-economic, racial and gender differences that exist within the city space. The city identity is instead constructed as an uncomplicated community united around the team – in the stadium, difference disappears as everyone unites behind the team. This is particularly true with the Seahawks, whose cooptation of artwork from traditional indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest for their logo, ostensibly as a tribute to communities that have always existed within Washington state (and who were, not coincidentally, the original inhabitants of the SoDo neighborhood), helps to sell a vision of Seattle as a culturally enlightened, tolerant and inclusive space. By selling a united community vision, Seattle (and the Seahawks) do not need to answer uncomfortable questions about rising ticket prices (which exclude the majority of the population) and the current inhabitants of the stadium neighborhood. Aware that the grit and “authenticity” of the neighborhood is part of what attracts consumers, the stadium district is produced as a place where residents and visitors can remain safe and enclosed but still venture out to “sample” exotic culture, e.g. the International District, and the gritty edge of an “authentic” city, e.g. Pioneer Square, the two neighborhoods that buttress SoDo.

From the top of Century Link Field, looking out into the SoDo/Duwamish industrial neighborhoods. The Alaskan Way Viaduct Highway – built to enable easy on/off access to the stadiums for those coming in from the suburbs – can also be seen, with downtown Seattle and the iconic Space Needle in the far background. Photo: Helen Morgan Parmett
Photo: Helen Morgan Parmett
The stadium was built to feel like it was a part of the city. Looking North across the field, you can see Pioneer Square and downtown Seattle settle into the backdrop. Photo: Helen Morgan Parmett
Photo: Helen Morgan Parmett

Both Safeco Field and Century Link Field were each built with great attention to designs that invited visitors to stay and spend more money through a kind of privatized and individualized mode of spectatorship and stadium experience. These changes play a significant role in transforming sport and the stadium experience from a working-class aesthetic to one that primarily catered to middle and upper class families.((This increasing “pricing out” of working and lower-middle class fans stands in stark contrast to branding efforts which seek to characterize football as the quintessential American sport for working people. The league, teams, and cities seek to capitalize on sports association with “real” America while excluding large swaths of the country through rising ticket prices.)) The stadiums feature personalized viewing experiences, luxury boxes, private suites, and upscale restaurants and retail. There are 7,700 club seats at Century Link Field, which cost between $150-$280 per game. These 24-inch wide seats are advertised as “fully padded high-back seats, the largest in the NFL.” Patrons can also pay extra for a “Red Zone” suite, marketed as “the only field-level suites in pro sports,” located by the north end zone. Throwing a crumb to the masses, a “few lucky fans” could be upgraded to a suite through a public lottery. The increased luxury level seating also promotes more privatized and individualized stadium experiences, where fans need not integrate themselves among the masses. A single Seahawks ticket cost an average $88.20 and their fan cost index was $472.40, putting the stadium experience out of reach for most of the neighborhood’s residents.((The fan cost index is defined as the average cost of taking a family of four to the game (four season tickets, two beers, four soft drinks, four hot dogs, parking, two programs, and two adult hats).)) What makes these luxury experiences particularly disturbing is that they are in part subsidized by the public (CenturyLink received $300 million in public financing), and, for the most part, those hit the hardest by these subsidies are the poor. This means that those who are arguably contributing the most in helping to build the stadium side are the least likely to be able to take advantage of its experiences.

In addition to creating a “luxury experience,” CenturyLink Field was also built within a rationality of contemporary placemaking that was quite distinct from the building of the Kingdome (the former Seahawks stadium which previously occupied the site of Century Link Field). Its distinction reflects broader changes in urban branding, where elaborate public/private partnerships (such as in the case of the varied partnerships borne out of the city’s relationship with the corporations that own stadiums and teams) contribute to how “the city itself is increasingly transformed from a real place of value and meaning for residents and workers to an abstract space for capital investment and profit-making and a commodity for broader consumption.”((Greenberg, Miriam. Branding New York: How a City in Crisis Was Sold to the World. New York: Routledge, 2008. 35-36.)) Specifically, whereas many argued the Kingdome did not reflect anything uniquely “Seattle,” CenturyLink Field was built with the explicit aim of promoting what was distinct and unique about Seattle. The design, for example, purposefully opens up to views of the adjacent neighborhoods, and the materials used in each corner of the building are meant to reflect and signify their material geography. The stadium’s architects claim the “site design creates connections both physical and visual to [its adjacent] neighborhoods and weaves the area together in a logical and coherent form.” The masonry, such as the columns, beams, and punched openings are meant to pay tribute to the architecture of neighboring Pioneer Square (itself the subject of a variety of urban renewal schemes in response to discourses of its “deterioration” and widespread homeless population). This positions the stadium within contemporary shifts in urban branding, where the stadium space itself becomes a means for marketing Seattle, and not just the site of the stadium, as a distinct and unique destination city.

As a media entity, the stadium has therefore become a key site for selling a notion of “Seattleness.” This symbolic branding function of the stadium is further embodied through the promotion of the passion, commitment and volume of the Seahawks fans as the “12th Man.” The 12th Man phenomena, which refers to the idea that Seahawks fans are so dedicated and loud that they represent an extra player on the field, has become a key branding strategy for the team. Hanging in the stadium, a banner declares CenturyLink Field, “Home of the 12th Man” and the team has retired the number 12. The fan noise has become an intimidation tactic aimed at the opposing team, but also a key marker of identity. CenturyLink Field is considered one of the loudest stadiums in the league, producing Seahawks fans as passionate boosters for their team and city while also creating an attractive branding opportunity for the franchise. This promotion would not necessarily have purchase for everyday Seattle residents, as assumedly those who live, work, and play in Seattle would be actively participating in creating what Seattle means. Instead, these promotions are about eliciting further capital investment and profit-making so as to produce Seattle as a worthwhile investment. The stadium, and the loud fans it is capable of producing, are therefore not only meant to reflect Seattle, but, rather, they directly to contribute to its landscape, thus playing an active role in helping to further efforts to brand the city as a “major league” city worthy of outside attention and investment.

These ways in which CenturyLink Field helps to produce efforts at branding Seattle and cultivating upper-class consumer subjectivities within that branded logic are further buttressed by efforts to transform the SoDo neighborhood into an entertainment district, “a dense, modern urban playground that would include thousands of waterfront homes, office buildings and a grand park.”((McOmber, J. M. Group of landowners plans urban playground for south of downtown Seattle. The Seattle Times,February 7, 2003.) Like the stadiums, Motley Fool Million Acres reviews state that this kind of transformation of the neighborhood would require substantial city investment from taxpayers that would largely result in a financial windfall for real estate investors, but could have potentially devastating effects on the working class and on the diverse neighborhoods adjacent to SoDo.((In part due to these potentially adverse effects, the 2003 plan begot widespread criticism and faced virulent opposition from the SoDo Neighborhood Association, who argued in favor of keeping the neighborhood industrial.)) Conflicts have risen in the last two years as the city stands poised to decide on whether or not to build a new stadium in the hopes of attracting an NBA and NHL team. Reflecting the turn in public opinion against state funding of stadium projects, the current proposal is entirely privately financed. The proposed site for the new stadium is again in SoDo. Allowing the stadium to be built in this area would require rezoning, which would then open up the area to lodging and residential development.

Debates over stadium building in Seattle and SoDo’s redevelopment therefore call into question just what kind of place Seattle is, and whose place is it? Given the way in which the place is designed and coded to cater to an individualized and upper-middle-class aesthetic, as well as oriented toward producing the fan experience as one of luxury consumption, CenturyLink Field arguably constructs Seattle and the SoDo neighborhood as one that erases and elides its raced and working class history. Next generation stadium building, like CenturyLink Field, has become a critical partner in the on-going battle over urban space and renewal. What makes these stadium projects particularly insidious are the ways in which they use the language of community and the affective community and civic bonds fostered by sports teams to mobilize an “inclusive” vision of city planning that disenfranchises and pushes out poor and working-class communities of color. As such, we wish to suggest that studying the relationship between sports teams, civic space, and city branding is a productive avenue for understanding city space in the contemporary moment. This case study highlights the important ways in which sports spaces are overlooked in media space research. These spaces are some of the most mediated sites, and, certainly, they play a crucial role in the televisual cultural economy especially. In considering the important ways in which media is implicated in the production of urban space, then, stadiums represent a crucial site for understanding the contemporary media city.

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