September 22, 2009

The Jerrytron Catastrophe

Last night, I watched my hometown team, the Dallas Cowboys, lose in rather agonizing fashion to the New York Giants?and on the very night that they opened up their new stadium! There is, of course, much to be discussed about the on-field action. As NBC?s Tim Colinsworth aptly put it, Cowboy quarterback and noted seducer of Top-40 starlettes, Tony Romo, is in danger of becoming, not the next Troy Aikman (who kept his libido in check throughout his entire career, by the way), but the next Danny White: that is, an immensely talented and exciting player who seems to just always blow it in the big game, and who?s thus bound to suffer under severe castigation and collective snickering by Cowboy fans everywhere after he retires. And how is that Roy Williams, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound, once-dominant wide receiver, can simply disappear out there and get manhandled by defenders half his size? 

But, of course, what everyone?s really talking about is Jerry Jones?s new retractable-roof megadome, ?Cowboys Stadium,? which costs the owner and the City of Arlington just under 1.3 billion to construct. Last night, this sum afforded me the Baudrillardian experience of watching footage of a shockingly enormous high-definition television on a big high-definition television.

The Wall Street Journal reports,

The new stadium’s center-hung scoreboard, the brainchild of team owner Jerry Jones, is 160 feet long, 72 feet high and cost $40 million. Its roughly 30 million LED lights give it a resolution as good as the best home televisions. The Cowboys say they are working with the Guinness Book of World Records to get it certified as the world’s largest high-definition video screen.

?Megatrons? are nothing new, of course, but Jerry?s isn?t just HD but located in the very center of the action?and the spectators? lines of vision. The apparatus even informed the architecture of the whole stadium:

The Cowboys’ screen hangs from the roof in the center of the building, 90 feet above the field. The board helped dictate the design of the rest of the stadium. Two quarter-mile-long steel arches, one of the building’s signature architectural flourishes, are needed to support the video board’s 600 tons.

And as the fans who attended the opener attest, you just can?t stop staring at that thing:

Mr. Jones says the screen also makes business sense. The stadium’s main competition is the comforts of home, where the seats are comfortable, the parking is easy, and the beers don’t cost $8. As more fans get high-definition, big-screen televisions, the visual experience of watching the game at home is improving, too.

But after preseason and college games were held at the stadium this summer, some fans complained that the video board’s 70-foot-tall images distracted them from the action on the field.
Stephen Barnes of Fort Worth attended preseason games at the stadium and said he had to work to watch the field, not the screen. “You can see the sweat rolling down their faces,” Mr. Barnes said before the game Sunday.

“You don’t even know there’s a field you stare at the board so much,” said Marco Ramirez, who was tending the grill Sunday, and who also attended preseason games at the stadium. But Mr. Ramirez’s friend, Gabe Escobedo, didn’t think that was a bad thing?fans get the experience of being at the game while being able to see it as clearly as they would at home. “You get the best of both worlds,” he said.

Mr. Jones said he wanted the experience of watching the game on the field and on the screen to be seamless. Unlike most NFL scoreboards, which show mostly replays, the Cowboys’ screen will show the game live, with a dedicated camera crew feeding images to the screen. (The team had to hire its own crew because television networks only shoot the game from one side, meaning the action on the screen would have moved in reverse for fans on one side of the stadium.)

Mr. Jones says he got the idea at a Celine Dion concert in Las Vegas, where images of the singer were projected on a two-story screen. Mr. Jones said he didn’t know what he had seen on the screen and what he had seen on the stage…

I fear that the Jerrytron reveals many terrible things about our country, and these go well beyond the rather easy (though certainly true) criticisms one might make about America being a decadent nation of ?bread and circuses.? Indeed, I wonder if Cowboys Stadium might be the greatest objective symbol of cultural catastrophe since the Hindenburg blimp.   

Most obviously, there?s the price?1.3 billion?or rather the inflation that it implies. In many ways, the JerryDome stands as a humongous counter-argument to Michael Shedlock and Steve Keen who talk all the time about how we?re going to be entering a long period of credit deflation and falling prices across the board. 

Only twenty years ago, you could buy yourself a best-in-the-league megadome for only $570 million?Canadian! The cost of a retractable-roof stadium has thus increased by 350 fold in twenty years?well, beyond the decline in the value of the dollar. Obviously, the JerryDome is awesome-er than the SkyDome (now known as the Roger?s Center), but is it really three-and-a-half times awesome-er? Isn?t there a kind of structural, ?getting started? cost for building any retractable-roof facility, no matter how big it might be, that should keep the costs fairly similar? (Plus, if you subtract the $40 million-dollar price tag of the Jerrytron, the increase in cost is still well beyond 325 percent.) And this same inflationary spiral has occurred in non-retractable-roof stadiums as well: the original Soldier Field was built for 10 million dollars in 1922; the recent renovation cost 600 million. The world?s first domed stadium only cost 35 million to construct back in 1962.

Obviously, the increase of labor costs has much to do with this macro-trend (though I can?t find any indication that Jerry used unionized workers to build his palace). More important is the fact that it?s often with these big public-private (or league-private) projects that the massive expansion of credit and the money supply under Greenspan and Bernanke is revealed in all its horror (even as its aftereffects in everyday prices are not as easy to discern.)

There?s also the opportunity cost. Low-tax, non-unionized Texas is obviously doing a whole lot better than the Rust Belt; however, it?s a sign of the times that a billion in credit, which is inherently limited in supply, has been directed towards the construction of an enormous entertainment center?and not a factory or some other site of production and manufacturing. Across the nation, the recently laid off will flock to all the ?new jobs? created by the construction of a Stately Pleasure Dome in Arlington, where fellow citizens pay for the opportunity to collectively stare at an enormous flashing screen.

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