I spent much of last weekend in Denver, watching the Rockies and the Broncos.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the Rockies’ win was far more enjoyable than the Broncos’ loss — but, taken together, the events had a certain similarity.
Modern professional sports are businesses. That’s hardly news, but what’s interesting is the degree to which their marketing strategies, product presentation and business plans are virtually identical.
In both Major League Baseball and the National Football League, 32 teams compete for the championship. And while there’s a certain cachet to reaching the playoffs, and advancing, there can only be one winner.
If all teams are evenly matched, then management can only expect a championship once in 32 years. And if some franchises, like the Yankees and the Cowboys, are disproportionately successful, then the wait might be even longer.
Decades ago, owning a professional team was a simple business. You fielded the best team that you could and relied upon fan loyalty to fill the seats and pay the players.
But now, with so many teams and so many entertainment options, fans are fickle. If the team doesn’t win, they’ll stop paying attention — unless captured and kept by sophisticated marketing.
The coldly realistic men and women who run modern franchises learned long ago that they can’t always field a winning team, so they’ve changed with the times.
The game experience, whether at Coors Field or Invesco Field, is remarkably similar. It’s full of noise, both auditory and visual, celebratory and expensive. Good seats at either Invesco or Coors can cost hundreds of dollars each, effectively pricing out most potential fans.
Game attendees (with the exception of an ink-stained journalist or two) tend to be more prosperous than the fans at home watching TV.
Team execs have three simple goals for gameday.
Their first goal is to provide attendees with an exciting, pleasurable experience, to make fans feel like they are a part of something real and exciting, and to leave pleased with the experience, regardless of the game’s outcome.
Their second goal: sell!
They’ve got stadiums packed to the gills with affluent folks who aren’t going to move for the next three hours. Sure, they want to sell mass quantities of beer and brats, but that’s nothing compared to the revenue from in-stadium advertising, from product placement, from luxury boxes, from party suites and from every revenue generator that brilliant advertising minds can devise.
Their third goal: sell more!
Transmit the Broncos/Rockies experience to a larger world, to the traditional fan base of middle income and working class Coloradoans, who might go to one or two games a year. Encourage them to worship at the shrine of Super Bowls yet to be won, or at the no-longer-impossibly-distant World Series berth.
The eventual goal: to create, as both the National Hockey League’s Avalanche and the Broncos have done, a cadre of loyal fans, who will each year believe that this might be, despite the odds, another magical season.
And the professional sports leagues have powerful allies, who are just as interested in maintaining the illusion that victory is just around the corner as are the teams themselves.
And who might those allies be? Yours truly, and the rest of the media. While most of us would deny that we’re in bed with the honchos of professional sports, we’re uncomfortably close to the bedroom door.
For TV and daily newspapers in particular, sports coverage draws readers, viewers and advertisers. Sportscasters and sportswriters alike go along with each team’s seasonal narratives, feeding the public thirst for things that are real, substantial and unmediated, with outcomes that aren’t scripted.
We create and nurture the enduring sports myths that sustain and define the overlapping seasons of baseball, football, basketball and hockey. We identify heroes and villains, achievers and slackers, inject interest and drama when needed, cheer the home team (“if God isn’t a Bronco fan, why are sunsets orange?”) and pump up rivalries (“the Raiders — pure evil or just Satan’s Spawn?”).
What we might call the sports/business/media complex is, like the military/industrial complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower identified during his farewell address half a century ago, powerful, all pervasive and apparently unstoppable. Player salaries soar into the stratosphere, taxpayers in dozens of American cities (including Denver) ante up for expensive stadiums and the best public relations minds in the world scramble daily to cover up player indiscretions.
But there’s a difference between the sports/business/media complex and its military/industrial predecessor.
Forget the money, the loutish performers (Barry Bonds?), the scammed taxpayers and the mostly inept teams. The whole vast enterprise has a laudable purpose — to entertain, to lighten our hearts, to bring cities and regions together, to give us all a shot at a championship. Commendable … yet dangerous.
To be a fan is, after all, a solemn undertaking. It’s to give a piece of yourself to fate — and fate might treat you unkindly.
Consider my mother, a New Englander by descent if not by birth, born in 1898, who rooted for the Red Sox for all of her life.
She saw them win the World Series in 1918 — and then she waited … and waited … and waited. In 1986, she watched on TV as Bill Buckner booted the routine grounder that cost the BoSox the World Series. And still she waited.
She died in 1993, a few days short of 95, having waited 75 years for the championship that never came.
And when, at last, Boston won in 2004, I thought of Mom. She would have been pleased — more than pleased, ecstatic!
And I was pleased too, because the Red Sox victory released me from my filial obligation to root for Boston. Now, with a Red Sox/Rockies World Series a real possibility, I know what to do.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.