Why you should care
Because it explains, at last, the wild ways we worship sports.
My first trip to Wrigley Field was on Sept. 21, 1997 — an incredible day capping an unmemorable season for the Chicago Cubs. My father took us to the North Side that day. I remember the smell of spilled beer, boiled hot dogs and late summer near Lake Michigan. The grass that was 10 times greener in person than on a WGN telecast and the sketchy dudes, who I now know were scalpers, were asking 9-year-old me if I needed a ticket when I stepped off the train. Pop, peanuts and the seventh-inning stretch. That day marked the beginning of a lifelong love affair.
According to Rafi Kohan’s The Arena, which hit stores in August, there were countless unnoticed mechanisms tugging on my heartstrings too.
The Arena isn’t a book about sports. Rather, Kohan writes, it’s a book around sports — an effort to understand the relationship that fans have with the teams, players and, specifically, the monstrous secular houses of worship that we call stadiums. From January 2015 to February 2016, Kohan set out to discover how American stadiums affect fans — economically, politically, psychologically, culturally — as individuals and as a society. He spent weeks in over two dozen cities, ingratiating himself with groundskeepers, scalpers, organists, lobbyists and more — learning the ecosystems spawned in our man-made monuments of game.
Ever wondered where the fresh sod that groundskeepers roll out comes from?
Ever wondered where the fresh sod that groundskeepers roll out comes from (spoiler alert: Alabama), what behind-the-scenes dealings take place to secure billion-dollar stadium commitments or why the American stadium experience increasingly feels like a masturbatory display of masqueraded patriotism? Kohan has you covered. “We’re all familiar with the general workings of a stadium,” says Kohan, explaining why he decided that a book about stadiums was one that needed writing. “But there’s all these other worlds that exist within a stadium.”
He’s a veteran journalist who has reported from inside the New Orleans Police Department during Mardi Gras and done deep dives on life in a minor league bullpen (what he calls “the most boring place in sports”). So it comes as no surprise that segments of The Arena take on a gonzo-esque feel. In one chapter, Kohan works to embed himself in a group of Cleveland ticket scalpers. “It took a few weeks before they stopped turning their backs on me,” he says. But, once they talked? The dwindling group of hardened roadies revealed intricate cross-country travel patterns and more.
Across 11 chapters, Kohan introduces a cast of characters that deepen a connection to the games we love. More importantly, though, this book makes you want to tour a stadium in person, to see “where the beer flows from, how they rake the dirt … even things like crowd control,” he says.
Kohan’s tales also identify how sport helps shape the evolving American identity. As journalist and stadium expert Neil deMause notes in the book, arenas have become places to sell fans things rather than simply good places to watch a game. And Kohan critiques not only the ways in which teams target our wallets but also how they exploit our patriotism.
Still, whether you’re a sports diehard or novice, a history buff or fan of business, psychology and culture, The Arena will be a welcome addition to your reading list.