The New England Patriots are one of the best performing teams in the National Football League, and their fans are known for being some of the most dedicated in the league. Their home away from home reflects this. Gillette Stadium meets all the requirements and more for being a locale to enjoy an incredible game day experience. Flooded with hordes of other fans who share a common interest in the Patriots, this setting is nothing but social. The Patriot game day experience at Gillette Stadium and the surrounding grounds of Patriot Place are an example of how one of the most important things about a sports spectating experience is the social aspect of the event. The environment at Gillette is conducive to socializing, and at the same time utilizes its place as a social setting to appeal to fans as consumers for all different kinds of commodities. Gillette Stadium and Patriot Place is a magnified, commodified example of a “third place” that exists in sport spectating. My game day experience on September 30, 2018 confirmed this. As the Patriots took on the Miami Dolphins, I observed both the camaraderie and consumption that happened amongst fans at the game.
This paper will explore the different ways a Patriot's game day is conducive to being a “third space,” an idea that was put forth by Melnick in his article “Searching for Sociability in the Stands: A Theory of Sports Spectating” (Melnick, 1993). I will discuss how the stadium has used its version of the “third space” to its advantage in attracting consumers in a social setting, and how this is an example of sports spectating being commodified. I will also explore different observations from me and two attendees of a Patriot's game to further illustrate this point.
Gillette Stadium is carefully crafted to give fans one of the best game-day experiences possible, in many different ways. Before entering the large stadium itself fans must enter through Patriot Place, a project sponsored by Patriot owner Robert Kraft. It is an open-air shopping and entertainment center, that Kraft describes as “a super regional lifestyle center” (Bailey, 2006). It includes: numerous high-end to low-end restaurants; various stores, including a Victoria's Secret, a Bass Pro Shop, and Christmas Tree Shop; a movie theater, a health center, and of course a Patriots Pro Shop. Patriot Place, which is positioned directly next to and surrounding Gillette Stadium, is a unique example of how sporting game days have been turned into cash cows at every corner possible. Yet, the popularity of Patriot Place and the atmosphere at Gillette also show the importance fans place on the ability to socialize when choosing to attend a sporting event.
Patriot Place is utilized everyday --not just Patriots games- but is especially crowded before, during and after games. People who may not have a tailgating spot flood the restaurants and bars hours before kickoff in order to start game day festivities. Two people I interviewed during the game recounted they went to a restaurant in Patriot Place called Bar Louie before the game, and that it was completely packed. They had to wait an hour for their food to arrive, and they recounted the seating was uncomfortably cramped. They also noted that people were watching and cheering for other sports games on TV. Walking in Patriot Place myself, I observed how crowds seemed to be everywhere around the center. I saw multiple visitors perusing the stores, shopping bags in hand. The entire experience happening at Patriot Place on gameday represents a shift from an emphasis on the game itself, to an orientation surrounded around providing entertainment opportunities. These are opportunities that allow Patriot's to produce revenue -at every corner. This shift is a trend that has been seen in most American sport leagues' marketing strategies (Silveira, Cardoso & Quevedo-Silva, 2018). One particular study shows that delivering a quality entertainment experience, such as pre-game shows, luxury boxes and high-quality food and drink is one way of guaranteeing that fans will satisfied with their experience and increase their chances of returning. The study shows the entertainment factor and the game atmosphere are more important in a fan's satisfaction then the outcome of the actual game (Silveira et al., 2018). This shift was confirmed during my game day experience, as well. Fans were crowded in Patriot Place, buzzing in and out of different restaurants. To further illustrate this point, one interviewee, Tyler, made the interesting observation that fans will come to Patriots Place or to their tailgate spot up to four hours before a game to enjoy the different forms of entertainment, but will leave halfway through the actual game. This points to the fact that fans' priorities now revolve around being entertained. Another scholar made note of this trend when commenting on the recent decrease in fans attending games when he wrote, “With technology encompasses ones everyday life, incorporating new features to stadiums was not only crucial to the atmosphere of games, but also increasing and maintaining fan attendance” (Open Dorse, 2017).
An important facet of entertainment on game day arises out of the different opportunities to socialize. The group affiliation motive has been cited in multiple studies as being a major motivation in a person's decision in being fan (Wann et al., 2001) (Samra & Wos, 2014) (Appelbaum, Cain, Darling, Stanton, Nguyen, & Mitroff, 2012). To fans, going to a stadium to watch a game is a social activity --a chance to spend time with family and friends, and even to bond with strangers that share a common interest. Melnick emphasizes this social motivation in his theories about sports venues being a “third place.” He writes that “Sports spectating has emerged as a major urban structure where spectators come together, not only to be entertained, but to enrich their social psychological lives through quasi-intimate relationships” (Melnick, p. 46, 1993). This characterization of sports spectating speaks to the fact that it is a place where strangers can feel totally normal and comfortable socializing over a common interest: their team. This kind of social factor is what attracts many fans to the game, and what keeps them attending the events. When I asked two attendees of the game what they thought about the crowds and fans they saw at Gillette on gameday, they confidently characterized them as loud, rowdy and dedicated. They went on to describe that, “especially in the cheap seats we are in, there is a lot of comradery” as compared to a luxury box. One interviewee noted that it is not unusual for strangers sitting in the same area to interact. Fans high five each other, exclaim about plays during the game, and start chants together. I also saw this happen during the game, especially among groups of younger men who seemed to be around the same age. Men would be more active in cheering, and would engage with each other even if it appeared they were sitting in separate groups. This certain organic interaction that happens at a sporting event, is precisely why Melnick argues it is a “third place.” The social interactions people experience engender a larger feeling of belongingness, which is something humans have a primal need for (Melnick, 1993). There is expected behavior at this “third place,” spectators understand and speak the same language of sports (Melnick, 1993). At Gillette, fans reacted with joy simultaneously after a big defensive play was made, and everyone did the same arm motion every time after the Patriots got a first down. This atmosphere of shared interest and comradery is one thing fans enjoy about spectating; the “third place” a sporting event can provide is one of the most important factors in attending an event like this.
Taking this one step further, Gillette is an amplified example of a “third place” due to the commodification and the aggrandizement that now surrounds the game day experience. Melnick outlines necessary characteristics that a “third place” should have. Comfortability, a fun atmosphere, and minimum fan behavioral restrictions were among them (Melnick, 1993).Gillette Stadium and Patriot Place exceed these requirements. It has a multitude of different comfortable settings not only to watch the game from, but to socialize. There is a number of luxury boxes as well as comfortable seats encompassing the field. Patriot Place offers opportunities for fans to comfortably relax and engage with each other while watching the game on TV if they did not want to splurge on a ticket. Also, the stadium provides a party-like atmosphere for it's fans. There are countless bar and restaurant options at Patriot Place and inside the stadium fans cannot walk 15 feet without running into a beer stand. During the game, there is also a fun atmosphere that thrives among the fans. Fan posters and banners are allowed and encouraged, as are cheers and chants. The loudspeakers and the players themselves encourage the fans to “get loud.” I noticed that every time every time there is a third down the jumbo screen showed a different Patriot player encouraging the crowd to get loud.
Although, something Melnick does not include in his characterization of a “third-place” spectating event, is the other entertainment options available at Gillette. A “third place” does not require a countless restaurants, a shopping mall, a hotel, or music shows. Yet, Patriot Place and Gillette have integrated this into their game-day experience, setting new standards for sports spectating. These new additions target fans as consumers. Although, fans' orientations may have shifted from directly on the game being played, it seems they have managed to successfully keep fans attending the games and to keep them eager to socialize and participate together. Make no mistake, Patriot nation still showed up in full force on that day, clothed in sea of “12”s, still buying $9 beers.
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