Wednesday, August 20, 2008

August 23, 1981

There's a fine line between euphoria and mania, and the American media has certainly crossed it with the Michael Phelps phenomenon. Eight gold medals in one Olympics is an amazing feat, but why does this mean that Michael Phelps is suddenly the Greatest Olympian and/or Athlete Ever? How are we to compare what Michael Phelps has done in the pool to what Tom Brady does on the football field, or Tiger Woods on the golf course? And how can we compare a sport that allows for one athlete to win eight medals, when the majority of Olympic sports only have one opportunity for one medal (including the ten-event decathlon)? Have we reduced the measure of athletic greatness to the amount of hardware and magazine covers an athlete receives? Are we simply saying that the greater the spectacle, the greater the achievement?

What is indisputable is that every Olympics needs its narrative, and Michael Phelps has certainly provided it for this games. Given that Syracuse is also currently searching for a storyline, perhaps we should also take a moment and ask, what is the measure of greatness for a city? Arenas? Bruce Springsteen concerts? Arenas that can host Bruce Springsteen concerts? While we all may have a hungry heart for The Boss and similar big-name events, we also occasionally bite off more than we can chew. Case in point: the NFL exhibition game between the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles in the Carrier Dome, August 23, 1981.

1981 was a banner year for sports in Syracuse. Not SU sports necessarily (SU football had a 5-6 record, leading to the resignation of seven-year coach Frank Maloney), but the Carrier Dome was transforming Syracuse into a nationally-recognized sporting venue. By August 1981, Syracuse had hosted a Sugar Ray Leonard-Larry Bonds welterweight title fight (attended by 21,000 and broadcast on HBO), the National Sports Festival and the Empire State Games, not to mention record-setting crowds for SU football and basketball. So when it was announced in March 1981 that the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles would be playing their third (of four) preseason game in the Carrier Dome, the news seemed to be earning Syracuse a reputation as, in the words of a Post-Standard editorial headline on July 16, 1981 headline, a "Sports Fans' Paradise." The Eagles were the reigning NFC champions, having lost to Oakland in Superbowl XV the past January. The Saints, unfortunately, had earned their nickname "the Aint's" the season prior, having lost 15 of their 16 regular season games. But the offseason had brought a new coach, O.A. "Bum" Phillips, as well as the top draft pick, 1980 Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers. There were stars on both sides of the field, including Eagles QB Ron Jaworski, Saints QB Archie Manning, Eagles cornerback Herm Edwards and coach Dick Vermeil. For 12 (endzone) or 16 (sideline) bucks, Syracuse had an incredible opportunity to see the NFL live in action, or so thought industrialist and philantropist J. Stanley Coyne, who underwrote the matchup as a charity game for ARC. For all ticket sales above the cost of upfront expenses, the profits would go to ARC. A tally of these expenses:
  • Guaranteed payment to Philadelphia Eagles: $150,000
  • Additional payment to the Eagles if the stadium sold out: $25,000
  • Guaranteed payment to New Orleans Saints: $150,000
  • Travel expenses for both teams: $70,000
  • Payment to Syracuse University (for dome rental, ticket-handling, busing and promotional expenses): $127,000
  • Miscellaneous expenses (advertising, etc.): $40,000
  • Syracuse Herald-Journal realizing on March 26, 1981 that having $562,000 in upfront costs for a charity game would require a minimum attendance of 35,000 to generate at least a $10,000 donation to ARC: priceless
What's striking is that Coyne, an entrepreneur who started his business during the Depression, entered into this obvious losing proposition. While the National Sports Festival could be considered a loss leader due to the long-term investment and exposure, the same could hardly be said for a one-time game that was intended to raise money for a charity. Disappointing developmentally disabled children in front of a national television audience doesn't exactly sell a city to the nation. Perhaps Coyne had been inspired years earlier by the Cerebral Palsy Clinic games of the late 40s/early 50s (organized by attorney Lionel Grossman), when near sell-out crowds of 22,000 attended NFL exhibition games at Archibold Stadium, including the final 1953 matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and then-national champions Detroit Lions. Given the increase in Syracuse population in the thirty years since, as well as the increased popularity of the NFL, Coyne may have assumed that the Dome would easily sell out 50,000 seats. Coyne flew Bum Phillips up to Syracuse for two press conferences, flew newspaper reporters down to New Orleans for a series of pre-game articles, and commissioned sculptor Buck Warren to carve a 25-foot high, 7 1/2 ton rose to carve out of California redwood as a gift to the Rose Bowl, to be presented during the Eagles/Saints halftime. Coyne did present this sculpture to the director of the Rose Bowl at halftime in the Dome, in front of Mayor Lee Alexander, County Executive John Mulroy and a grand total of 28,001 ticketholders.

If Syracuse's loss had only been a half-empty stadium on national television (NBC) for all of the country--save for the blacked-out areas in Central New York--to see, then it really wouldn't have been any worse than the 36-7 beating the Eagles gave the Saints. Think of it this way: if 1981 was Michael Phelps' 2004 Athens' games, then this would be the bronze disappointment compared the gold-medal performances of the Bonds-Leonard fight, the National Sports Festival, and the Empire State Games. But the players in this sport treated the bronze in a manner similar to wrestler Ara Abrahamian, stomping off and placing blame in a public forum, much to everyone else's discomfort and unease. Feeling bad that ARC would get no money from this charity game, Benedict LeStrange, executive vice president of Coyne International Enterprises, hit up representatives from the Eagles and Saints for $10,000 donations each at a cocktail party the night before the game. After calling team owners', each team complied. Coyne himself wrote ARC a check for $5,000. Coyne told reporters he "couldn't understand" why attendance was low, stating that "The public has been hollering for a pro team...we had two great teams and a great stadium. I don't know why it didn't fly." (The Post-Standard, August 24, 1981). LeStrange echoed the statement, saying "This town is maybe not ready for professional football. Maybe we built too big a stadium." (The Post-Standard, August 22, 1981). Coyne also blamed NBC for changing the game from a Saturday night (August 29)--which he believed surely would have brought a sell-out crowd--to a Sunday afternoon (although NBC paid the Coyne foundation $50,000 prior to the game for this switch, and August 29 would have fallen during the State Fair). Dome publicity director Mike Holdridge faulted the National Sports Festival for "draining dollars" away from the game, as the festival had "saturated the Syracuse sports market for the summer" (Syracuse Herald-Journal, August 24, 1981). Syracuse Herald-Journal editorial writers agreed, contending that "the abundance of first-quality sports attractions in Syracuse this summer just depleted the average fan's budget." (Syracuse Herald-Journal, August 25, 1981). The editorial writers also criticized the Coyne foundation for setting such high ticket prices, as well as the New England Patriots, for pulling out of their original agreement to play the Eagles (even though the Patriots paid a $25,000 fee to the Coyne foundation for breaking the agreement). Sports columnist Arnie Burdick maintained the loss of money was due to waiting to July to sell tickets to the general public, allowing only season ticket holders to purchase tickets prior to this time (Syracuse Herald-Journal, August 24, 1981). He also questioned why Coyne agreed to such an "unfavorable, 'can't-win' contract," including not getting any percentage of the ancillaries (concessions, parking, program, etc.). Syracusans as a whole were taken to task in a number of articles and editorials prior to the game for not contributing to charity by purchasing tickets, and thus causing harm to Syracuse's status for hosting future exhibition games. And yet in all of the finger-pointing, no one ever stopped to ask one simple question:

Why was Syracuse hosting an NFL exhibition game between the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints?

In 1953, the last year Syracuse hosted an NFL exhibition game, football was not widely televised. The Super Bowl was still 14 years away. Exhibition games (which numbered six in the years prior to 1978) in non-league cities were a means to promote the sport, as well as earn money for the team. By 1981, the teams were primarily doing out-of-town exhibition games as moneymakers (the Eagles were supposedly offered $450,000 to play in Los Angeles the same weekend as the Syracuse game, but honored their original commitment). Of course, if money was made after the upfront costs, these profits would benefit the city (or charity), and the city did get national exposure (more that 40 newspapers and 30 radio stations were at the Dome for the Eagles/Saints game). In recent years, preseason games are not only primarily held at one of the playing team's venues, but are also scheduled such that no team has to travel extensively. (An exception to this, of course, was the pre-season game between Buffalo and Pittsburgh in Toronto, part of the $78 million deal for Buffalo to play 5 regular season and 3 preseason games in Toronto over the next 4 years. It should be noted that the August 14 exhibition game only drew 48,000 attendees, with over 15,000 tickets being given away for free.) Even in 1981, exhibition games were known for being played mostly by second and third-stringers, players that would be cut at the end of pre-season and never to be heard from again. The Eagles/Saints games was a slight exception in that it was the third pre-season game, which usually features more veteran players (Manning and Jaworski played until the third quarter). But exhibition games are somewhat reluctantly attended at home stadiums, so why would there be 50,000 Syracusans who would want to see Philadelphia and New Orleans? Only 150,000 wanted to see the National Sports Festival, and that included 33 sports over six days. SU students, which were obviously a large part of sell-out dome crowds, had just returned to campus. And if the main selling point was to see NFL players up close and in action, well, the New Orleans Saints held open practices in the Dome for the two days prior to the game, complete with autograph sessions, which anyone could attend for free (and over 500 did).

Yet beyond the matter of bad planning, there's another underlying issue of even greater concern. In an August 20, 1981 letter to the Post-Standard by William Hanbury, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Hanbury wrote that if the Eagles/Saints event was successful, there would be a chance of hosting even more exhibition games in the future, starting with Cleveland and Buffalo in 1982. These exhibition games would "contribute to Syracuse's continued growth as 'Sports Town USA " (August 20, 1981). By using a phrase like "Sports Town USA," does Hanbury sound like he is aiming for Syracuse to be a city that carefully recruits and selects sporting and other significant events that benefit both host and guest, or a theme restaurant where big name athletes make an appearance once or twice a year, and overpriced, generic hamburgers are the stars of the show for all the rest?

On February 19, 1967, a letter from Noreda A. Rotunno, Professor Emeritus, Landscape Architecture at Syracuse University, appeared on the Syracuse Herald-American Opinion page. While it had been written in response to an earlier editorial regarding a new city hall design, she offered this closing advice:
I sincerely hope that in the rebuilding of our downtown Syracuse, and, in fact, any development within the city, we do not approach it as we would a circus, with spectaculars along the midway and barkers proclaiming that we have the largest glass building, the largest pile of concrete cubes, the greatest forest of concrete piers or more "spaghetti roads" than in any city in the state.

It behooves us to weigh carefully each decision on any project and to relate this decision to what we presently have and what we anticipate having in the future.

All of our new developments must not only be beautiful, functional and economical in themselves, but must be compatible with all the characteristics that we like to believe Syracuse represents, economically, socially, industrially and culturally, and at the same time be complimentary to the natural beauty of the area.

Such developments, buildings, building complexes and outdoor areas must go beyond our present level of appreciation, but should not be "too far out" for the sake of publicity.

The day after Michael Phelps won his 8th gold in prime-time glory, Stephanie Brown Trafton, a third-place finisher in the Olympic trials, won one gold medal in the discus competition, the first US woman to do so since 1932. Stephanie herself wanted to be like Mary Lou Retton, until she grew to 6' 4", and had to find another sport to suit her strengths. While she may have won a gold just as her idol, Stephanie Brown Trafton will not be appearing on a Wheaties (or Corn Flakes) box, nor will she be an inspiration to thousands of little girls throughout the country to take up discus throwing. Let's be honest: after the closing ceremonies, chances are the American media won't mention her name again. But for those in her discipline, and all those who follow the unglamorous, rarely televised, but most ancient of sports, she is the story of these Games. A story that may never be a bestseller, but will also never be lacking for an audience.


Anonymous said...

"sports town usa" sounds alot like the current "green capital of the world".

another fantastic post!

NYCO said...

This blog is making me want to curl up into a fetal ball.

I mean that in a good way. Thanks for dredging up these nightmares.

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