INDIANAPOLIS -- It's even uglier up close. I mean, the architecture of it isn't offensive; its tall flat surfaces of impossibly smooth brickface appear as out of a three-dimensional CAD drawing, a simulation come to life. But Lucas Oil Stadium (or "Sports Bubble Stadium," if you prefer) is repulsive in its physical context.
Directly across from this giant red box on its south side is a trash-strewn empty lot, hemmed in by rusty fence and barbed wire. There are dusty, seemingly abandoned buildings serving obsolete American small industries -- welding machines, steel fittings, crematory supplies. The brick building in the foreground above is unmarked, and when I asked around I learned that it's a satellite office for a failing wine distributor. I pulled into the area and parked in a ramshackle urban neighborhood, where boys in Peyton Manning replica shirts were playing with war toys. As I passed by a dirty white house with an overgrown lawn full of weeds, I was repeatedly shot with a plastic machine gun, until I gave in and play-acted death.
Irony requires two separate significations, an expected value and the actual, and this is the measure of the gap between them. (A meaning bubble, as it were.) So there is a quantifiable distance between my being here and the idea that I shouldn't be, and a ironic size of the space between this building and its neighbors. Lucas Oil Stadium has done nothing to positively impact the existences of these people, these businesses, but it changed my life forever.
The story has been collected in overview form elsewhere
. But in January 2009, I was staying at the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Airport -- one of the many buildings in the city that overlook this skyline eyesore -- when I received word that ESPN.com was cutting my contributions in half. Budget cuts, they said. Stranded in the middle of a five-month basketball road trip of my own design, I looked out the window for a while, then I started writing. Those words,
a study of the difference between the actual and perceived values of American sports in the 21st Century, got me fired
. If it wasn't for the generosity of you, the readers, this experiment would have disappeared completely. In the past 15 months, I have been kept out here on the road by sales proceeds and donations totaling almost $20,000.
And thanks to the Butler Bulldogs' run to the 2010 Final Four, I'm entering the very stadium that inspired this alternate path. If God is the sum of all actions, then this is what providence is.
This site's return to full content independence has allowed for considerable further examination of the Sports Bubble, what it is and how it operates.
It is not much different
than the housting bubble, or the dot-com bubble, or the Beanie Baby bubble. The basic principle is that the stated and declared value of a product or service is unsustainable, and only existent in theory. Any actual tangible investment is dangerous and most possibly ruinous. In the same way that South Sea Company stock
wasn't worth the cost of the paper it was printed on, a player contract worth millions is of questionable value as well. So are the future TV rights to broadcast a sports event, or a giant stadium that counts on recouping its operating costs with five events per month.
Entering Sports Bubble Stadium on Saturday night was an emotional moment. I realized that I was having a singular experience that nobody around me would understand, so I was more than able to restrain myself from shouting out revolutionary victory slogans, or breaking one of the high windows with a Molotov cocktail, or weeping openly and collapsing to my knees. I just fumbled inside my souvenir lanyard until I found the $260 face value ticket, and tried to deep-breathe so I'd stop from visibly shaking. The concourses were surprisingly small and cramped, so I had to elbow my way to the closest portal.
My actual seat was in a northern corner of the floor level, right near where the Michigan State tunnel. It was a temporary seating area on a riser, with folding chairs that had the actual seat numbers written in chalk on the bottom. Each chair had a seat cushion with the 2010 Final Four Logo on it.
I thought the organizers were just being nice, that they were placed there for careful consideration of our buttocks, until I saw the State Farm Insurance logo on the other side.
I've often said that the closer you get to the Final Four, the farther away the game gets. That's not only because the seats get farther away from the court, but also because there's more and more static in between. In the long hour before game time, we were bombarded with commercial messages: giant signs in the concourses, advertisements on the giant video screens, and wall stickers in the bathrooms. There was Coke Zero madness and a text shortcode to send your favorite Final Four memory to AT&T -- as was the case at Houston's South Regional, the official cell provider of the NCAA had trouble providing service in the actual arena itself. The upper-corner readout on my iPhone blinked from "3G" to "EDGE" to "Searching..." and back and forth, all game long.
All the signs had stock photos of basketball players in them, and the messages all blurred together. Consumption of flavored water, or a life insurance purchase, or talking on the phone can somehow replicate the experience of having your team win the National Championship, or make it feel like you're hitting a game-winning 3-pointer in the Final Four yourself. If this is repeated enough, it starts making actual sense.
Seemingly ironic, I suppose, since every ad message in the arena itself is meticulously covered in black tarpaulins and tape. But as anybody who's been to the Olympics knows
, this is not to provide spectators with an unsullied sports experience. It's to clear the way, to scrub the venue, to ensure that the pathway between the corporate champion and your skull is as clean and sharp as a needle.
My particular seat, there in section 109, was loaded with sarcasm. When I faced straight ahead, squared my body to a zero-degree angle, my direct view was the CBS mobile studio. There was TMM interview subject Seth Davis
, reading over his notes for the upcoming game. He was close, but not so much that I would be able to yell hello to him.
I guess I could have stayed home and watched from my couch, tweeting disposable analysis. If I had, I'd have been able to hear what Greg, Greg and Seth were saying. And as Sports Bubble Stadium filled out, as the blue seats in all three decks were replaced by tens of thousands of tiny little dot faces, all too far away to be distinguishable. There was a cluster of Butler blue there, a lighter Duke blue elsewhere, splotches of Michigan State green and West Virginia yellow.
Butler, the least corporate program left in the NCAA Tournament, the one only understandable in this context with old "Cinderella" tropes, finally took the floor. All the Michigan State fans stood up to boo them. And that's when I noticed something very strange. The people in my own section didn't stand up for a better view. They simply sat back, looked straight up and ahead, and watched the shootaround on the corner Jumbotron; this dynamic would continue well into the game. The cycle was complete, and reality was inverted. Our bodies were filling the seats, but we were having nearly the same experience as the folks at home. People were paying $260 to attend a game and
watch it on television. The only difference between us and them was that we had a pin attached to our souvenir lanyards that read, "I Was There."
The game itself went by in a blur. It was a series of disjointed moments, tied together by the tiny time clock on the far wall, a collection of points accumulated on scoreboards larger than the court itself. Each time-out, as well as the extended halftime, seemed twice their own length, and I sat there shaking, with my stomach lining shredded, wishing the in-between would end. The season was over if the result went the other way. I stood up for the whole thing, I had to, because my line of sight to the floor was my only constant. It was so easy to lose touch with the idea that I was at a basketball game.
A lot of people asked me what my reaction at the end was, if I screamed and jumped or hugged complete strangers. I felt drugged and logy. When the game was over, I calmly turned around and walked up the ramp. I didn't even take my seat cushion. I pushed my way through the crowd of Michigan State supporters trying to unload their Monday tickets, and soon was back out on the streets outside the Sports Bubble Stadium's north gate. It only took two blocks before I was alone again, in the quiet of yesterday's Indianapolis.
When I arrived to my rented white Kia in that sad old residential neighborhood, I could see three men on the half-lit porch of a run-down house. They were sitting in broken lawn chairs, holding cans in koozies. "Hey buddy," one of them called out. "Who won?"
"Butler," I managed. "They'll be playing for a National Championship on Monday."
"Good for them," came the reply. "Go Butler."
I tried to drive, but my legs were shaking too much to properly work the accelerator or brake. I pulled alongside the gate of a steam plant, and turned off the car.
The central lie of the Sports Bubble, and indeed the falsehood of any bubble, is that the numbers on the paper don't match the value of what's being sold, that actual market forces have been cleverly bypassed by some new reinvention of the financial wheel.
Here in Indianapolis, every conversation on the street has been about the expansion of the Tournament. The NCAA has made absolute sure of that, announcing on Thursday that a 96-team bracket
is the best possible option. The easiest answer is that it's about greed and TV money. The closer you get to the power center, the people who know what's really going on, they'll talk about how the NCAA's push for expansion fits into the bigger picture of American sports.
Television contracts for major pro leagues and NASCAR all turn over in the middle part of this decade. This summer's opt-out in the current NCAA Tournament television contract is a possible slipknot: locking in a guaranteed contract now
, instead of being lost in the shuffle of all the big dollars to come. But there's also a deep fear: what if this really is a Sports Bubble?
What if the economy doesn't come back, and all those contracts are for lower amounts? In this possible scenario, if the NCAA locks in a guaranteed long-term contract now
, and not in 2013, the health of college basketball is legally assured well into the next decade. And if this is what ends up happening, the NCAA will end up as the smartest people in the room.
And imagine, say, if ESPN ends up with this. And if they end up holding the rights for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics, the World Cup, professional American-Style Football, baseball, and the NBA. And
if they can't find enough sugar-water manuafacturers, lyte beer swill shillers and car companies to buy up the billions of dollars of ad space. The natural progression is to give advertisers more guaranteed power, more space inside the games themselves. But failing that, it's budget cuts. Cutting an inconsequential dot-com college basketball writer wouldn't solve a penny's worth of anything. That's how the Worldwide Leader becomes the Worldwide Loss Leader.
That's logic, and that's what gives me contentment. I know that corporate sportz madness will naturally implode on itself, that in the end it's those who want and need less -- the Butlers of the world -- that will inherit the earth. But in the interim, we have to keep dissenting, reminding others of the beauty in this that seems so far away now. We have to keep talking about the love for the games that keeps us coming back to search for a real experience, one that can never be bought or sold.
There's a tale that's floating out on the streets of Indianapolis this weekend. At a National Association of Basketball Coaches meeting on Friday, the gathering concluded that the 96-team bracket was a fantastic idea that rewarded teams for their hard work, and which would also help coaches in their contract negotiations with their athletic directors. More teams, more job security, longer tenures. A fantastic idea... is there anyone here not in favor of this?
According to two accounts, only one man stood up in opposition of this idea. It was Bob McKillop of Davidson, whose team came one missed shot away from the 2008 Final Four. It was the same Bob McKillop who spent his press conference time during that run talking about the "Beautiful Game," invoking Brazilian soccer
, and waxing eloquently about th search for the "perfect season." It was language we knew well
, and I've drawn deeply from his inspiration over the last two years.
I want to take that lead, and be the only one who will stand up in a room full of those whose resolves have been softened. I want to keep finding the best in Our Game, and speaking out against the encroachment of the Bubble. And all of that would not be possible if I was still writing for ESPN. I was always a good boy, made nice with everybody, and always hit my deadlines. If it wasn't for those budget cuts, the first cracks in the facade, I'd still be there covering mid-majors. So either way, in either reality, I'm here in Indianapolis, right now, following Butler. "All roads lead to Indy," as the Bud Light billboards around town say.
People still tell me I was a moron to post "The Sports Bubble." But I am so very glad things turned out the way they did; as time keeps moving, I realize that the ESPN Years
were the worst four years of my life. Things are back to the way they were before, when it was just me, the road, and the sport I love so much that I'd actually die for it. And no matter what they end up doing to Our Game, that's the way it'll be from here on out... because bad dreams always end, and sanity finds a way to prevail.