by Frank Zeidler, Jr, Executive Director
I am originally from the Philadelphia area and I still follow the hometown sports teams. One of the unique things about Philly sports is that the four major sports teams play in stadiums within sight of each other. In March, I came across an article announcing a new venue planned for the Philadelphia Sports Complex – the $50M Fusion Arena. The article detailed 10,000 square feet of training facilities, two balcony bars, club seats outfitted with USB ports, executive suites…all the amenities in many new stadiums, plus a “futuristic design.” The home team will be the Philadelphia Fusion and they play…video games!
Editor’s note: Before all the gamers in The Saints family form a picket line outside our offices, please realize that was not intended to be disparaging. I recognize that much of 21st century culture has passed me by – so please read the rest of the article before hunting me down.
Apparently, playing video games became a career path for some and the popularity has grown to monster proportions. The term for this is ESports, and the highest level of ESports – the Overwatch League – has teams all around the world. “This project places ESports alongside all the major traditional sports that call South Philadelphia home,” said Joe Marsh, Chief Business Officer of Spectator Gaming and the Philadelphia Fusion.
I don’t know if I agree that 3,500 spectators places ESports at that level, since the minor traditional sports in Philly such as Wings lacrosse and Soul arena football each draw more than 10,000 fans to a game. Nevertheless, the notion that playing video games is just something friends do on a rainy day to pass the time is clearly obsolete. Now we get to why this is front page news.
Over my 20 years of traveling with The Saints teams, I have seen a downward trend in the size of the crowds watching our games. We do still see large numbers of men and women but, in painting with a broad brush, the average attendance was probably 30-40% greater when I started than it is today. This is particularly true on crusades where The Saints Prison Ministry visit is a once-a-year special event. There was a time when our out-of-town team would draw averages of 150-200 inmates as we traveled to prisons in a new state. Today those spectator averages are closer to 75-125 (see page 4 for more on recent crusades). Less quantifiable but no less accurate has been the significant drop in attendance at morning events – we have almost reached a point where prisons don’t schedule recreation time for the mornings because the level of participation does not justify the cost of staffing!
I was having a conversation about this trend with a Recreation Officer in Illinois, and his explanation was surprisingly simple – “the younger guys don’t want to go outside nearly as much as the older cons used to; they want to stay inside and watch TV or play video games.” It gave me pause and as I reflected on it, the thought occurred to me that we routinely see the evidence of his observation.
Even though the prison populations are overcrowded with 20-somethings, the teams we play against are often made up of much older men and women. Softball certainly skews much older since it is a boring game to many younger athletes, but even in soccer and basketball, we see men in their 30s and 40s taking the court or running up and down the field. Moreover, a number of prisons have chosen the softball field as a place to construct a new building because usage is declining.
That is why the Fusion Arena caught my attention. Our ministry’s experience is mirroring today’s sporting culture – a younger generation with different interests, different priorities, and different attitudes are making themselves known. On the business side of professional sports, some visionaries have noticed and embraced this shift in order to be on the cutting edge of what comes next. I believe that as a ministry we have a God-given responsibility to do the same.
I am not suggesting we form a Saints Prison Ministry Fortnite Team this week. However, I am suggesting that we should be prayerfully considering what comes next and how we are going to reach a lost and dying generation of prisoners who may not embrace what has made us so popular and successful for the past 30-plus years. It is not out of the question that The Saints Prison Ministry – God’s ministry through us – will look very different when I come to our 50th Anniversary Celebration.
I just pray that during the celebration party I understand what they are talking about!