Athenian Democracy: The Sports Edition

My connection with the Apostolos Nikolaidis stadium in downtown Athens is very personal. It is the historic home of my team Panathinaikos (meaning the team of all Athens), and where I attended a soccer match for the first time. There have been many happy returns since then. I also have a family connection to this venerable sports arena. Back in the 1930s, my maternal grandfather, Georgios Yannoulatos, and his brother Panaghis, along with Theodoros Demetriades, all of them leading members of the Panathinaikos Sports Association, helped financed one of the stadium’s seating stands. I could feel the weight of all this history on my shoulders as I went to the stadium in downtown Athens to cast my vote in a referendum on whether or not the old stadium should be pulled down and a park built in its place. In return, the Municipality of Athens would offer a plot in the Votanikos section of the city where a modern, bigger stadium would be built along with a number of additional facilities for other sports.

The 72-million-euro stadium project will be bankrolled by the ministries of Finance and Development & Investments with funds also coming from the European Union Recovery Fund that is being made available to Greece. The stadium will be leased for 99 years to Panathinaikos. This mega plan is dubbed as the ‘double regeneration’ because it would create a park in central Athens where the stadium currently stands, and will revitalize Votanikos, an area with industrial warehouses and workshops badly in need of gentrification. The reason I got to vote on the issue is because I am member of the Panathinaikos Sports Association which owns the stadium which it opened in 1924. Competitive sports in Greece began not with sports franchises owned by an individual or a group of investors as was the case in the United States. Instead, they were run by sports associations, essentially amateur clubs, with members who paid their dues and which housed teams from a range of sports: soccer, basketball, track and field, volleyball, and so on. A little bit like what an Athletics Department does in American colleges and universities.

Eventually, the soccer team turned fully professional and became a separate entity in 1979, but it still uses the original stadium for its home games. Its old-style architecture and the proximity of the stands to the playing field means that fans are practically breathing down the necks of the players and this gives Panathinaikos a huge home advantage.

And yet, the soccer franchise needs a bigger venue to earn more revenues and to keep up with the Joneses, in this case their mortal rivals Olympiakos Piraeus, who got a new stadium in 2004, and also cross-town rivals AEK Athens, which is currently constructing a new stadium, named ‘Aghia Sofia’ because of AEK’s Constantinople origins.

But because the old Panathinaikos stadium is owned by its sports association, its four thousand or so members, who pay annual dues of 50 euros, had to a approve the multi-million euro plan in last week’s referendum. Unless they did so, the mighty soccer franchise of Panathinaikos, currently valued at just over 33 million euros, would not be able to acquire the stadium being offered it at Votanikos.

In the United States, the closest that ordinary fans get to determine a professional team’s future is when along with everyone else they have a vote on tax increases local authorities wish to introduce if they are in line to host a new mega sports facility. For example, when Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones decided to build what is today the ultra-modern AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX, the input the public had in this venture was that Arlington voters approved a number of relatively small tax increases in city services to raise the necessary funding.

In Athens things were done more democratically. The plan agreed upon by all parties was first announced by the mayor of Athens Kostas Bakoyannis over a month ago in a press conference which was streamed live and made available on YouTube. The texts of the agreements were posted on several Panathinaikos-related websites. And two days before the vote, the president of the sports association held a public information session which was also streamed live and posted on YouTube, and which lasted just over six hours.

On display at that session was Athenian democracy in action. It was attended mostly by critics of the deal, who suspected the project would never happen. They voiced doubts about the soccer team owner’s real intentions, about whether the mayor was being sincere, whether this was a scam to benefit the banks, or, sotto voce, a dastardly scheme of rivals Olympiakos aimed to level the old stadium and leave Panathinaikos homeless. Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed, and the plan was approved. Hopefully, Athenian democracy sports-style will have benefitted Panathinaikos.




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