Cutting a handsome figure: Sports team skylines

HongKong from above

Every city has a feel to it. Ah yes, the fountains of Rome, the smog monsters of Beijing, and the Ian Zeiring Chippendales posters of Vegas.1

Walking the streets of a city is the best way to get a sense of its ambiance — a person strolling through New Orleans’ French Quarter would never mistake their surroundings for the streets of Cairo.  But every city also has a larger visual identity, and a city’s skyline is the best way to get a sense of this broad aesthetic character.  Think of it as the shadow that each city casts on the wall while it awkwardly dances in candlelight in an 80’s teen movie.  The silhouette created by a city is partially determined by population and wealth and development prospects, of course, but it also reflects the image that the city wants to present.  The steady low rooftops of Washington, D.C., broken only by historical monuments and colossal political egos, cut a very different figure and send a very different message than the contempo towers of the Frankfurt skyline, which advertise the city’s status as one of Europe’s leading centers of finance and cocaine.

Likewise, every sports franchise has a history.  Some teams have short and forgettable histories, like the Charlotte Bobcats, who will be soon changing their name to the Hornets to begin that forgetting process as soon as possible.  Some have long and storied histories, like Real Madrid and the New York Yankees.  If you plotted a team’s success and identity over time, what would it look like?

Let’s say a lousy year with a losing record is not much of a blip on the radar, but a championship season is a major achievement represented by a bar that stretches high on the plot for that particular year.  Two championships in a row means two high bars plotted next to each other.  A lousy season or two then another trip to the title game would look like a valley and then another fairly high bar.  The plot doesn’t need to be cold and mathematical — a historically great team, like the 1985-86 Boston Celtics or the 1985-86 Chicago Bears, might have a bar that shoots much higher than most championship teams.  Head scratchers like the 2006 Miami Heat or overachievers like the 1988 L.A. Dodgers might have a lower ceiling.  An era that revolutionizes a sport, like Dutch soccer powerhouse Ajax’s run from 1965-73 with Johan Cruyff and “Total Football,” might carve a different contour than an era that puts those advancements into practice and improves on them, like the dominant 1987-91 A.C. Milan and its trio of Dutch stars.

Over time, each team creates its own skyline.  Each team’s skyline is a visual representation of the team’s identity through history.  Obviously, this is much more art than science,2 but here are an initial handful of team skylines, as I envision them, from the five major sports.

*  *  *  *  *

xHongKongHong Kong:  Real Madrid and Barcelona

Let’s start with the grand-daddy of them all.  Regardless of whether you think Hong Kong’s skyline is the most beautiful or has the best design, you will probably agree that it is the most impressive.  Despite all the kaiju attacks, it has by far the most skyscrapers3 of any city in the world, with more than 27% more than second-place New York City.  If you just go by tall buildings4 rather than skyscrapers, Hong Kong’s lead increases drastically, with essentially three times as many as NYC, four times as many as Tokyo, and on from there.  The result is a stunning visual footprint and the feel of a futuristic comic book megalopolis.

The closest major sports equivalents are Real Madrid C.F., which probably has the greatest resume of any soccer club ever, and F.C. Barcelona, which paradoxically is probably the more successful club within Spain.  Picking one of the two wouldn’t have worked.  The two arch-rivals are the absolute titans of Spanish soccer, combining for 54 La Liga titles and 44 additional second-place finishes.  Despite being outshone by Barcelona in recent years, Real has won La Liga 32 times, and has won a record nine European Cup/Champions League titles.  It also has had additional successes in tournaments such as the Spanish Copa del Rey (18 wins), the Intercontinental Cup (three wins), the UEFA Cup (two wins), the UEFA Super Cup (one win), and the Supercopa de Espana (nine wins).  In addition to Barcelona’s 22 La Liga titles, it has also won the Copa del Rey 26 times, the Champions League four times, the Club World Cup twice, and has amassed a total of 84 official titles.  The two teams have seen legendary names pass through their ranks, such as Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Hristo Stoichkov, Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi and the current crew of Spanish masters in Barcelona, and Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Raul, the “Galacticos” of Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Luis Figo, and David Beckham, and current star Cristiano Ronaldo in Madrid.  Beyond the hundreds of titles won, the real reason their skylines match with Hong Kong is their sustained success for more than a century, creating the effect of an endless string of towers.

Even Cristiano Ronaldo’s sense of self-worth would look paltry in the Pearl of the Orient.


xParisParis:  Chicago Bears

Paris’s skyline does not loom and dominate like the biggest American or east Asian cities.  Instead, it has a steady rooftop level broken occasionally and purposefully by monuments and cathedrals.  The city is vibrant, but not in-your-face like many massive cities — if you listen carefully, you can hear the Pixar rats scurrying across kitchen counters to stir pots of vegetable stew.  On the outskirts of the city, a more common skyline has taken shape in the La Defense business district.

The Chicago Bears were a highly successful franchise in the early George Halas decades, through the Sid Luckman era, and into the Dick Butkus years.  The team won numerous NFL championships in the pre-Super Bowl era, and was one of the major early forces of the league.  This cluster of success is represented by the grove of towers at La Defense in the background.  In modern years, the Bears’ cultural identity has been dominated by its historically great 1985 Super Bowl winning team, which stands apart from the rest of the relevant Bears teams both in time and in form.  That isolated champion carves a unique silhouette apart from the rest, like the Eiffel Tower in the foreground.  I, for one, would pay to see the average Frenchman’s reaction to Fridge Perry doing the Superbowl Shuffle in his prime.

xSingaporeSingapore:  Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers

Singapore has one of the most impressive skylines in the world, with dozens of modern towers creating a glowing visage surrounded by reflective water.  The city has a huge downtown core, as well as a more recent off-shoot resort complex along Marina Bay, including most notably the massive Marina Bay Sands casino seen on the left, which opened in 2010.  One thing you won’t find in the metropolis, apparently, is vandalism — the cautionary tale of the caning of Michael Fay, immortalized in the Weird Al “Headline News” parody, taught all 90’s kids that simple fact.

The Lakers, first in Minneapolis and then in Los Angeles, have been one of the two most successful basketball franchises of all time, necessitating an towering and impressive skyline such as that of Singapore’s core, made up of the Mikan, Chamberlain/Baylor/West, and “Showtime” eras.  Even when these teams weren’t winning titles, they were nearly always relevant and contending.  The modern Lakers have tacked onto the central core legacy just like the Marina Bay developments, most notably with the Shaq/Kobe three-peat from 2000-2002, represented by the three-towered casino.

Ironically, Kobe would probably refuse to ride on the giant Singapore Flyer ferris wheel with most of his teammates from those championship years.

xTokyoTokyo:  Manchester United

Tokyo has a long history as being the urban center of Japan, dating back to the early 1600s when it was known as Edo and was the center of a powerful shogunate.  It was not until the 1960’s, though, that Tokyo overtook New York as the world’s largest metropolitan area, and it has not looked back since.  In the late 60’s, it was the first city to reach 20 million.  By 2000, it had topped out over 26 million.  It is now estimated at approximately 35 million, easily the world’s largest.  This meteoric rise has not surprisingly created a striking vertical skyline with numerous massive skyscrapers.  Two stand out above the rest, namely Tokyo Tower, lit up on the right side of the photo, and the massive Tokyo Sky Tree, in the distance on the left, which was completed in 2012 as the second tallest structure in the world.

Like Tokyo, Man U has a long history, having been founded in 1876 as the Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Football Club.  The team put together several spotty decades, with its nadir coming in 1958 when a plane crash claimed the lives of eight players and 15 others.  Once again, like Tokyo, the club began skyrocketing in the 1960’s.  After two Football Association Cup wins in the middle of the decade, the era culminated with a star-studded team of George Best and Bobby Charlton becoming the first English team ever to win the European Cup in 1968.  After several up and down years, Alex Ferguson took the helm as manager in 1986.  During his reign as manager, which lasted through the 2013 season, the club enjoyed unprecedented success, including, most notably, 13 of the 21 Premier League titles since the dawn of the league in 1992.  The climax was the 1998-99 season wherein the team became the first ever to win the “Treble,” consisting of the Premier League, FA Cup, and Champions League crowns.  Ferguson was knighted shortly thereafter.  The massive success of United in the post-1960’s era is represented by Tokyo’s modern skyline, and the Tokyo Tower and Sky Tree stand above the rest, much like the 1968 and 1998-99 teams.  Hell, the team has such far reach that it even has a presence in Tokyo, spawning numerous anime fan tributes and other… well, let’s just move on.


xIstanbulIstanbul:  University of Alabama Crimson Tide (Football)

While Istanbul does have a traditional skyline, seen in the far distance, its optical mystique is much better defined by its spectacular mosques.  In particular, three above all else cut the most striking profile.  Above, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as the “Blue Mosque” for its interior tiles, appears on the left.  The Hagia Sophia, which was originally a Greek Orthodox cathedral, is on the right.  Not shown is the Suleymaniye Mosque, which is even bigger than these two.  All three have stunning visages and numerous minarets, and are among the most impressive Islam influenced buildings in the world.

For all the turkey legs consumed at Crimson Tide tailgate parties, the similarly named country has no real-life connection to the team.  But the skylines match perfectly.

With the exception of Harvard and Yale, both of which won most of their titles before 1900, the University of Alabama has had an unmatched level of success in football.  Since 1920, only Notre Dame and USC are within seven titles of Alabama, which has won a whopping 15.  Most of those championships were won in three distinct dynasties.  The first was the three championships under coach Wallace Wade in the mid-20’s to early 30’s, which could be stretched to include coach Frank Thomas’s two titles soon thereafter.  The second was the six titles won under legendary coach “Bear” Bryant in the 60’s and 70’s.  The third is still fresh in our minds, and includes the (at present) three titles won by coach Nick Saban in the past five years.  If it weren’t for Auburn’s incredible last second 109-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown (in which Alabama was burned by having fielded numerous large blocking linemen during the field goal attempt), the team may have won its fourth under Saban.  The three distinct dynasties are represented by the three massive Istanbul mosques, each with its set of minarets standing in as championship banners.

Somewhere, Brent Musberger is staring at the above photo while awkwardly proclaiming “wow, what a beautiful city!”


xShanghaiShanghai:  Montreal Canadiens

Shanghai is big.  Based on actual city boundaries, it is the biggest city in the world.  It better be if it is repping the Canadiens, the team with the most storied history of all NHL franchises.

These days, the Habs are known as much for their rivalry with Toronto (and other teams) as they are for producing any results on the ice, but the team has a fearsome history, and was for decades the envy of all other puck chasers.  It has won an unprecedented 24 Stanley Cups since 1915, and has produced no less than 62 Hockey Hall of Famers.  The unstoppable teams of the late 1950’s stand out above the others — those teams won a record five consecutive Cups, and employed nearly a dozen Hall of Famers including “Rocket” and Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau, Bernie Geoffrion, and goalie Jacque Plante.  The picturesque towers of Shanghai are well suited to the Canadiens’ impressive legacy.


xKualaLumpurKuala Lumpur:  Miami Heat

The exoskeleton of Malaysia’s largest city is instantly recognizable for one reason.  Well, two reasons.  The splendiferous twin Petronas Towers light up the city’s skyline in a memorable way.  The Kuala Lumpur Tower on the left is no slouch, and it is complete with an Islamic lunar observatory and even basejumping, but it is vastly overshadowed by the Petronas twins that draw more attention to themselves than even the Winklevoss twins do.

The Miami Heat came into the NBA in 1988 alongside three other expansion teams.  The team was largely irrelevant for a generation, despite notable stars such as Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, Glen Rice, Steve Smith, and Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner who won two Slam Dunk contests in the mid-90’s.  It was not until the arrival of Dwyane Wade, and subsequently Shaquille O’Neal, that the Heat earned (or some would say, were gift-wrapped) their first championship in a 2006 Finals over the Dallas Mavericks that is as notable for the questionable officiating as it is for Wade’s stellar play.  More recently, the team has won back-to-back titles on the shoulders of LeBron James, who has made good so far after taking his considerable talents to South Beach.  The 2006 title is the Kuala Lumpur Tower (seen at left), which is overshadowed by the bigger and glitzier Petronas Towers, standing in for the 2012 and 2013 twin championships.


xLondonLondon:  Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers

London has been one of the most important cities in the world for hundreds of years.  It is full of world famous landmarks and edifices, many of which contribute to a unique visual profile.  Despite its huge metropolitan size, though London is incredibly spread out and does not have a traditionally clustered skyline.  Some of the more modern additions have added vertical muscle, notably the huge “Shard” seen on the left, and the ultra-contemporary rounded “Gherkin” tower (presumably modeled after a Beefeater hat) seen on the right among several other skyscrapers.  Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the London skyline is the way it is spread across the Thames River, including the distinctive Tower Bridge which leads directly to the historic Tower of London, home to the ghosts of Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, King Henry VI, and Stay Puft.

The Brooklyn Dodgers franchise was founded in the 1880’s, and went through numerous different incarnations (including the “Bridegrooms” and the “Superbas”) before settling on “Dodgers” for good in 1932.  In their 26 years in Brooklyn as the Dodgers, the team would find a reasonable amount of success and would spearhead the integration of the Major Leagues, but could not win a title until 1955.  That particular team happens to be one of the most storied of all time, and it featured Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella and the “Boys of Summer” team that beat the Yankees for the title.  The team moved to Los Angeles in 1958, and promptly became dominant in 1959.  Led by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, the team would win three of the next seven World Series, and then won two more in the 80’s when led by Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser, respectively.

The relatively sparse Brooklyn era is represented by the south side of London, broken by the massive Shard tower which stands in for the legendary 1955 squad.  The team then crossed the country/River Thames to Los Angeles/the north bank, where success has been easy for the team to find and where a cluster of modern towers can be seen.

These days, the team can be found gleefully heaving money at free agents in various stages of the downsides of their careers.


xFlorenceFlorence:  Miami Dolphins

Prior to the rays of hope emanating from Ryan Tannehill, the Miami Dolphins have played football about as well in recent years as 16th century painters would (one short-lived playoff appearance in the last 13 years).  The history is rich, though.  So too in Florence, the very heart of the Italian Renaissance, which itself is not a particularly large place.  It can be traversed from end to end in a comfortable walk.  It does have some of the most shapely and unique buildings, none less than the Palazzo Vecchio fortress-style town hall on the left, and the famous Duomo/Florence Cathedral, which was built over nearly 150 years in the early second millennium.  Most of the rest of the skyline consists of comely red roofs and low, uniform Tuscan buildings.  With Florence, it’s quality, not quantity.

The Dolphins came into the AFL in 1966, and did not wait many years to make a splash.  Specifically, in 1972, they completed the first and still the only undefeated season, going 17-0 (including playoffs) and winning the Super Bowl in Los Angeles.  The following year, coach Don Shula led the team to another dominant Super Bowl win, which stands as the last that the team has earned.  These two titles match onto the Florence landmarks above, and in particular, the gravity and uniqueness of the 1972 team earns comparison to the impressive Duomo.  Mercury Morris can pop some prosecco in Perfectville — his team made the cut.



New York City:  Boston Celtics

Handing the famous Manhattan skyline to a Boston team is sure to ruffle some feathers.  However, the endless skyscrapers of New Yawk City are best matched with the most successful NBA team of all time, the Boston Celtics.

New York’s skyline is dominated by the towers of downtown and midtown, with the Empire State Building standing a bit away from the rest.  Likewise, the many championships of the Celtics can be essentially divided in to the massive Bill Russell era, in which the team won 11 of 13 titles in the 50’s and 60’s, and the Bird/McHale/Parish era, in which the team won three titles in the 80’s.  Dave Cowens, Tiny Archibald, JoJo White, and others won a couple stragglers in the 70’s as well, and the outlier was the 2008 team featuring Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce.  Taking some aesthetic liberties, we can match the lower Manhattan and midtown tower clusters with the historically dominant Russell and Bird eras, and append the 2008 team as the separate Empire State Building. It’s not perfect, but most cities can’t handle the Celtics’ success.  They were even run by diminutive Italian men (Rudy Giuliani and Rick Pitino) for basically the same exact time periods.

To complete the loop, let’s deem this Ironworkers union building in queens to be the symbol of the 2013-2014 Celtics crapapalooza.


xMobileMobile:  Arizona Diamondbacks

The short history of professional baseball in Arizona (dating back to 1998, a.k.a. the K-Ci and JoJo era) requires a city on a smaller scale than many of the historic powerhouses above.  That short history has been largely a success, though, as the D-Backs have emerged from the NL West division five times already.  The broader cultural significance of the team, however, comes down to one and only one season — the memorable 2001 World Series run that involved seven white-knuckle games, multiple collapses by closer Byung-Hyun Kim, two extra inning games, three late comebacks, timeless heroics by co-MVPs Randy Johnson (three wins in the series!) and Curt Schilling, and the winning bloop by PED suspect Luis Gonzalez.  The Mobile skyline is utterly dominated by the RSA Battle House Tower, which is nearly double the height of any other building in town.  It stands alone in remembrance of the 2001 takedown of the seemingly invincible Yanks.

While the odds of taking down the three-peating Yankees and Mariano Rivera in his prime were low, the odds of the state of Alabama making two appearances in this first set of skylines was even lower.


xSydneySydney:  Chicago Bulls

This one is simple.  One of the most iconic buildings in the world, the Sydney Opera House, has six primary (although it has other secondary) beautiful shells that cut a remarkable profile.  The main shells are divided into two three-packs, each rivaling and equaling the other.  One of the most iconic basketball teams ever, the Chicago Bulls, has six NBA Championships to its name that cut a remarkable profile.  The championships were divided into two three-peats, each rivaling and equaling the other.

As everyone, even in North Korea, is aware, the Bulls became massively successful and reached global icon status on the shoulders of Michael Jordan, the athletic and ambitious maestro whose skill set has never been duplicated.  The man was transcendent.  Hell, the Monstars couldn’t even beat him in Tune Land despite some very trippy laws of physics.


xDubaiDubai:  New York Yankees

Dubai is as recognizable and unique a city as there is on the planet.  It has risen to prominence in the last quarter century as a major financial center and vacation destination as well as a massive-scale playground for the world’s most endowed pocketbooks.  The glitz and the glamor of imagination-bending sites like Ski Dubai (an indoor ski resort that rises out of the desert), The World islands (privately sold and owned islands constructed in the shape of a world map), and the Burj al-Arab (described as the world’s “only seven star hotel,” where Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal once played an exhibition match on the helipad:

One drive down the Sheikh Zayed Road and you quickly understand that this is a city of recognizable sites and big personalities.  No team better exemplifies these values than the New York Yankees, whose annals feature many of the most unforgettable American sports stars like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter.  Many of the footnotes of Yankees history are as famous as any other baseball moments, including Roger Maris’s 61 homers, Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Mariano Rivera’s devastating cutter, and Alex Rodriguez’s schoolgirl slap.  The team makes memories.

The team also wins championships.  27 of them, to be precise, nearly double that of second-place St. Louis.  The Yankees have won 40 pennants in their history, which means they have been a much stronger bet to make the World Series every year than any other team.  These exploits are seen in Dubai’s towering vistas.  The city has 153 skyscrapers.  Highest of all is the Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest man-made structure, which lords over the desert in awe-inspiring fashion.  This matches the 1927 Yankees squad, possibly the greatest of all time and certainly the most famous and legendary.

Sticking the Bronx Bombers in the Arabian desert feels right, especially seeing as how they rose to prominence on the shoulders of the real-life “Sultan” of Swat.

 *  *  *  *  *

Stay tuned for future installments…



  1. The man is an American treasure.
  2. Although it is most definitely more of a science than the vaccine-autism arguments.
  3. The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) defines a skyscraper as any finished building taller than 150 meters (about 492 feet).
  4. Let’s call a “tall building” anything over 100 meters (about 328 feet).

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