Into The Arena: Lessons From a Year-long Stadium Road Trip

October 11th, 2017 | by Rafi Kohan
Into The Arena: Lessons From a Year-long Stadium Road Trip

The Arena

Ed. Note: Author Rafi Kohan is joining us for a limited run to discuss his new book “The Arena” and the lessons he learned on his year-long stadium road trip. He’ll be sharing stories about unique fan experiences, logistics, and even the facilities themselves. We hope that these stories can be both entertaining and inspirational. 

Whenever I think about going to a ballgame, I always picture old Yankee Stadium. Even though the House That Ruth Built has been demolished for almost a decade by now, I can still recall with vivid clarity its dark and dingy concourses, which somehow felt both terribly claustrophobic and impossibly big. I can still inhale its smells: the peppers and onions, the boiled meat, the fries, the spilt beer. And I can still see that first flash of green, upon entering the seating bowl, the field like a grassy pearl inside a concrete oyster shell.

For many American sports fans, there’s a familiar thrill that comes with walking into a stadium, be it a ballpark, a football palace, or an indoor arena. This is where we come for unscripted theater, and where the venues themselves can often feel like homes away from home. This is where we take our sons and daughters as generational rites of passage, where traditions and allegiances are passed down like heirlooms, and where tailgates become family reunions, even when no one shares any DNA. But for all of our emotional (and financial) investment in these buildings, what do we really know about our country’s secular cathedrals?

In my opinion (and the opinion of one book publisher, at least), the answer to that question, as of the end of 2014, was: not enough. So I got a book deal, and for the next twelve-plus months, my mission was simple: hit the road and spend as much time in as many sports venues as possible.

Friends would frequently tell me how jealous they were of this professional assignment. They were jealous that I got to attend so many games. But the truth is that I’m not sure I watched more than a few minutes of live action all year. After all, as I put it in the intro to The Arena (available now!), this wasn’t meant to be a book about sports, but a book around sports. While reporting, I didn’t care about wins and losses. I didn’t hang out in locker rooms, hobnob with coaches, track statistics, or build a case for advanced analytics. Instead, I spent my time in the concourses and service tunnels, the parking lots and production booths, the groundskeeper clubhouses, sprawling concession warehouses, and cramped mascot rooms, as well as countless other corners of American stadiums that aren’t necessarily hidden but are almost assuredly unseen.

I wanted to look under the hood of these venues and learn what’s below the surface: the unconsidered and logistical underpinnings, as well as the people and systems that make these places tick. Additionally, I sought out a range of stadium experts, from historians, social scientists, and architects to economists, team executives, and security professionals. I considered big questions, like: What do we want from our stadiums? How is the fan experience changing? And why do we even bother going to the game, when we have perfectly good flat-screen TVs at home, along with stocked refrigerators and always-available bathrooms?

There is no simple answer, of course. We go for any number of reasons—for community and connection, for nostalgia and identity, for entertainment and escape. We go because we can be someone else for a few hours. We can be a fan. (The best stadium experiences, I found, are the ones that can somehow transport you.)

I look forward to sharing more about my journey in this space. For now, I leave you with a quote, which I thought about often as I traveled. The words belong to Winston Churchill. He said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” And, man, was he right.

Rafi Kohan About Rafi Kohan
Rafi Kohan is the author of The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport. He has written for GQ, Men's Journal, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, L.A. Times, Rolling Stone, Town & Country, and more. Formerly, he served as deputy editor of New York Observer. Currently, he works at The Atlantic as the head of editorial for Re:think, the magazine's branded content studio.

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