How corporate hospitality changed us

Updated: Mar 17, 2019

It's not that long ago when the Presidents sat in the crowd with the people who voted for them.

Michael Sandel’s brilliant What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets contains a chapter which is essential reading for anyone interested in the line between the commercial sector and our personal lives (which should be everyone). It strikes me he is saying something profound.

Sandel talks about the ‘Skyboxification of society’ (a skybox being his term for hospitality box at sports stadia). In it he quotes a piece from the mid-1990s, Divided The Stands by Jonathan Cohn .

When it rained during a game at Miami’s aging Orange Bowl, the filthy rich got drenched along with the great unwashed. The powers-that-were shifted foot to foot in the same nasty bathroom lines as the pressmen and their 10-year-old sons. They heard the same cheers, unfiltered by a Plexiglas shell. That proximity of rich and poor may have sometimes made both sets uncomfortable, but it also evoked a sense of community and connection capable of radiating far beyond the stands.

The first ever hospitality box was built when the owner of the Dallas Cowboys rebuilt Cotton Bowl, the franchise’s original home. He spotted an emerging new demographic group: the nervous nouveau riche.

Spectator sports’ metamorphosis into a badge of social status began, not surprisingly, in the capital of conspicuous consumption, Dallas – orchestrated by the Cowboys’ canny owner, Clint Murchison. In the late sixties, Murchison realized that his team had outgrown the congenial, crumbling Cotton Bowl. He wanted a big, slick, professional new stadium; problem was, Dallas taxpayers didn’t want to foot the bill. So Murchison decided to capitalize on his city’s great tappable resource: the nervous nouveau riche.

‘Skyboxes’ became the driving force behind a national stadium-building frenzy which is leading to bigger and ever more expensive venues. Over the next four years, investors and municipalities around the country spent more than $5 billion on new sports venues, and in many of those venues, skyboxes were the primary rationale for their construction.

The theme is developed in Separation Anxiety: Skyboxes: The Gated Communities of Sports in The Austin Chronicle.

Ted Turner, in an interview recently published in The New York Times, lamented the trend toward gated communities. “We’re getting to be like Mexico and Brazil,” said Turner, “with the rich living behind fences, like they do in Hollywood.”Robert Baade, an economics professor at Lake Forest (Illinois) College, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year about the problems associated with financing new sports stadiums. Like Blakely, he is disturbed by the skybox trend. “Stadiums have a finite amount of space,” says Baade. “If you devote more and more seating to preferential customers, what do you have left for the ordinary public? I think it means sports spectating is becoming a far less democratic activity.”

The media and public’s attitude to sponsorship is usually framed by the assumption that they represent the few, the default marketing tool of the 1%.


Category exclusivity has shifted from being a marketing asset to a toxic liability. Rather than being thanked for their investment, the brands are positioned as gatekeepers to corporatism.


These are not issues of communication, or spin. They are issues of substance. Much of sponsorship is about what the public can’t do: Visa’s absurd payment card exclusivity clause being the classic case study.


That Jonathan Cohn quote is directly relevant: “the filthy rich got drenched along with the great unwashed”.


Sponsorship is perceived as the vehicle of that separation.

  • Instagram
  • LinkedIn - White Circle
  • Twitter - White Circle

© Unofficial Partner 2020 London UK