In the midst of all the madness of the NBA Finals — the endless subplots, the gloriously lunatic Raptors fans, the KD return and devastating injury — it has been easy to forget the one moment, so far anyway, that I’ll always think of when I reflect on this series. It might just sum up the pro-sports industry in the year 2019, and it might just explain everything.
It has been a week since it happened, so try to recall your outrage. Because it was truly outrageous.
To recap, Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, going after a loose ball, dove into the stands at Oakland’s Oracle Arena, running into a couple of people in an unsuccessful attempt to retain possession. Anyone who has watched even a single NBA game in his or her life has seen this happen, and we even had a viral moment involving one from a Knicks game earlier this season, when Regina King, mere days before winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, nearly got waylaid by all seven feet, 280 pounds of 76ers center Joel Embiid.
There is an understanding when a player leaps into the stands in such a fashion that, after your first instinct to protect yourself, you assist the player and make sure he is okay. You are, after all, at their workplace and, ostensibly, in their way. The former Knicks guard Toney Douglas once landed on my laptop when I was sitting in the press row, and my only appropriate response to him was to apologize. They’re busy playing the game. We’re too close to them. We’re in their space. We’re sorry.
This is not what Mark Stevens, the white-haired man at Oracle Arena, did. He, amazingly, treated Lowry as if the Raptors player had invaded his personal space. (Which is particularly strange considering that Lowry didn’t land on Stevens, or even near him. Stevens had to reach across another chair and another human to reach Lowry.) He screamed and growled at Lowry and then — and I still can’t believe this happened — shoved him. Lowry handled the incident about as well as a human being could and acknowledged the next day how much of a shitshow it would’ve been if he hadn’t. But I can’t get past that initial idea: A man sitting and watching a game reacts to a player leaping to save a ball by getting angry at the player. This is like screaming at the pilot because your ears popping in flight, or screaming at an actor in a Broadway play because the concession stand doesn’t have your favorite licorice.
That the man turned out to be a minority owner of the Warriors was only more fitting, playing into the owners-vs.-players battle that has only intensified as more players have been able to utilize and amplify the power they now realize they have. (Stevens has since been banned from the NBA for a year and forced to pay a $500,000 fine.) But I think it’s worth looking at him, at least for the moment, not as an owner but as just another rich guy with courtside seats that cost in the low-to-mid–five figures. (Of which there are an unusually high number in Silicon Valley. The income-inequality issues plaguing the Bay Area are seen in microcosm at Oracle Arena.) There was a time when courtside seats were a place for celebrities to luxuriate, to see and be seen, to lend their shine to a league that always courted it. But now courtside seats, and “premium” seats at stadiums and arenas across the country, aren’t about seeing the game up close. They’re about separating yourself from the hoi polloi. These are the scenes from the sports-fan class struggle.
As sports have become more about efficiently maximizing profit in every way necessary both on and off the field, the idea of an “exclusive” fan experience has become central to every team’s business plan … one that’s more important than selling tickets. After all, in a world where most teams are making most of their money off television and licensing deals, the money you get from those diehards in the nosebleed seats is but a mere drop in the bucket, not worth much investment in the first place. (As anyone who has sat in the upper tier of any stadium in the past few years and been unable to get a beer without missing two full innings can attest.) Those Fan Experience surveys that rate stadiums on how well they cater to the average fan are missing the point: Nobody cares about the average fan. Industry estimates show that 70 to 80 percent of ticket revenue comes from the first 15 to 20 rows, and the industry trend is to limit capacity in order to maximize the money from the premium spots.The rich dudes (and they’re almost always dudes, of course) down low are where the real money is made.
The new Los Angeles football stadium is selling its most exclusive stadium-seat licenses for $100,000 a seat, which gives you access to your own clubhouse that no one else in the stadium can even see inside. The University of Georgia just announced that it will sell alcohol at its football games … but only to fans who give the university $25,000. (Even with that, you can only drink the booze in a specific section that does not have views of the field.) Yankee Stadium was constructed with a concrete moat built in to separate the fat cats from the outer-borough riffraff; the only way to get from the upper deck to those lower-level seats is to jump. The industry term is “social gathering space.” Perhaps inevitably, one team in Australia actually offers the ability to look into a team’s locker room pregame. As Ed Zitron, who sat in the Warriors’ “Mezzanine Club” for Game Four of the finals, a place that costs $22,000 a year just to enter, put it in Deadspin: “It was a sterile, gated-community way to watch a game — a way to be a ‘real fan’ without having to sit next to the proles. It was, to be fair, also a notably nice, relaxed experience; prime rib is delicious. But it was unmistakably a corporate setting. These seats cost about the same as those in the Sideline Club, which made buying these instead akin to saying that you want to be at the NBA Finals, and to say that you were there, without any of the troublesome basketball shit.”
This is to say, sports stadiums are beginning to look like the rest of American culture: The rich get all the good stuff, and the rest of us get to pay to watch them enjoy it. Is it any wonder that guys like Stevens feel like they own the place, even when they’re not in fact actual team owners? Hell: He makes more money than Kyle Lowry! That’s his space. You’ve see this particularly acutely in many baseball stadiums’ seemingly insane resistance to universal netting around the field to assure the safety of fans. In the wake of recent incidents like the one where a child was struck at an Astros game — and a woman was killed at a Dodgers game last year — many teams have dragged their feet in complying with an MLB order to extend netting from both ends of the dugout to 70 feet from the plate. Why? As the Times put it: “Some teams held out, reluctant to alienate fans in expensive lower-level seats.” That’s the premium experience, and it’s closer than ever: That same story notes that a study shows that fans are “21 percent closer to the action than they were 100 years ago.” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred confirmed that there won’t be more netting added this season, saying, “We do have fans that are vocal about the fact that they don’t want to sit behind nets.” Those aren’t the fans in the upper decks being vocal.
The more teams cater to the richest fans, the more entitled those fans are going to be. Mark Stevens acted like a man who felt he had more value than the player who was entering his seats. And when it comes to the bottom line, as far as these teams are concerned … he might not necessarily have been wrong. After all, once his ban is over, he might want to buy one of the “Bunker Suites” at the Warriors’ new Chase Center that opens in San Francisco next year. Those cost $2 million and actually come with a butler. You can’t see the court from those seats either. That’s probably for the best. After all, Mark Stevens will be able to afford those suites more easily than Kyle Lowry will.