Your Town is Not Your Team
Your town is not your team. It’s not your pro-baseball team, it’s not your college girls basketball team, and it’s certainly not your high school football team. Your school district and your community are two very distinct entities-stop trying to make them one. I have been in communities where the lines ares so blurred that the high school logo gets incorporated into the streetscape. Stop. Your community is not your sports team. Your sports team is a part of your community. That's all.
A distinct identity is a hallmark of a healthy and vibrant city. It's important to define a place’s identity, to cultivate it and to celebrate it, but when we supplant a community’s identity with the local ball team, we do considerable damage. I won’t argue with the importance of expressing pride and cheering on your hometown team, but supporting your sports team is not the same thing as supporting your community. In fact, it often comes at the expense of your community. Sports are fantastic for bringing people together and for the lessons they can teach our youth, but we should be careful with how much they become a part of our identity.
Every town has an identity outside of sports and it’s so important that we recognize and celebrate our collective identity. All of our cities were settled by people from other places that brought their trades, craftsmanship, and traditions with them. These cultural touchstones are woven into every community and have shaped the way our cities were built and they way they grew. The roots of our cities also shape the culture of the community, including pastimes, architecture, cuisine, etc. These differences are what make every city special. These unique attributes make residents proud and draw visitors from other places. These cultural differences connect us to places and foster affection. No one is attached to the generic, no one will travel for homogeneity. Too often these roots have been lost or ignored while the carbon copy chain stores and strip mall buildings have taken their place. Every time we lose a locally built building or business, we reduce the very thing that connects us with our community and the authenticity that makes our city special.
When the things that once made us proud start to recede, we seek out other places to invest that pride. I believe there is a strong correlation between lack of civic pride and an abundance of athletic pride. It stands to reason that if people are no longer proud of their community, they feel compelled to invest those feelings, feelings they are still desperate to experience, in other places. Those feelings are placed on sports. It’s certainly important that people have a means to express pride and it’s fortunate that there is an outlet for those feelings, but these emotional and financial resources can do so much more.
When working with a city in Northeast Ohio a couple of years ago, I was told repeatedly how proud this town was. Everyone in the public meeting insisted that their town was the proudest. Yet, when I walked around the city, I couldn’t help but notice there were very little visible signs of pride. There was nothing I could see to indicate that this community felt any pride for itself. Typically there are visible indications of the things we are proud of, but not here. Buildings were deteriorating, trash was piling up, yards weren’t tended to, and houses were in disrepair. Yet each yard, house and building had a sign showing support for the local football team. I realized the community wasn’t proud of itself, it was proud of the team. The pride people had once shown in their town had all been transferred to their football team. While understandable, it's a problem. The appearance of your town is what shapes people’s opinions, NOT the performance of your team.
A sports team does not represent a community as a whole. Some cities have multiple schools, some people don't care about sports, others moved in from out-of-town and didn't go to school locally. Sports have their place and they can foster a sense of community, but they can never replace a community core and when they become too important, it's a warning sign.
Having an identity is incredibly important to our cities and it plays a significant role in helping to foster vibrant places and establish connections between residents and their community. Cities that have a strong identity also have residents with a stronger sense of civic pride. People want to be proud of their place and want to be able to demonstrate it. That being said, there ARE lessons we can learn from sports.
Lesson #1 - Root for the Home Team - We know people are desperate to express a sense of pride. It's because we see more passion for sports in struggling communities, we can tell that people are drawn to experience pride and that it is a necessary and meaningful part of the human experience. We have to provide them with other opportunities to express those feelings. Give your community a place worth cheering for.
Lesson #2 - Schwag - Sports teams make it easy for people to be supportive. If your team didn't have a logo or colors, there would be no way to express your love for them. This is a lesson city leaders must take into account. If you don't have any way for people to demonstrate their pride or support for your community, then people can’t demonstrate pride or support for your community. Branding matters and cities need to develop brands that provide people with a way to show their support.
Lesson #3 - Friday Night Lights - Sports provide us with opportunities to get together. There are regularly held games that people can attend and show their support for their team and experience a sense of camaraderie with other fans. Most cities don't provide people with any opportunity to get together. People cannot be a part of a community if they don't have an opportunity to gather. City leaders must create regular opportunities for residents to get together so they can feel part of something bigger.
Lesson #4 - Boosters - Local teams give people other ways in which to demonstrate their support. Teams have fundraisers, seek out volunteers, ask for donations, etc. There are multiple ways in which we can support our sports team, yet most cities don't provide people with any opportunity to demonstrate their support.
Imagine if we dedicated the same level of pride and support to our communities as we did to our ball teams. Think how this would change our relationship to our city and how it would, in turn, transform the place we lived- and finally, how it would change our lives. If we cared as much about how our city faired as we did about our team, we could change its course in one season. We can and must. Even the best team can only provide you with joy and satisfaction a handful of nights a year, while a healthy, strong and vibrant community has the power to impact your life every single day.
*Thank you very much for taking the time to read my blog, if you found the information useful, I do hope you will consider sharing it with your friends and colleagues.
- Jeff Siegler