Greatest Sports Marketing Legends -- An Outtake
The more hypocritical sports commentators have explained their prurient interest in Tiger Woods' automobile accident by saying they wonder how all the sordid speculation surrounding his violent encounter with a fire hydrant will affect Woods' business empire. That is, will it cost Woods endorsement money if it turns out he was fooling around and his wife tried to smack him one? Journalistically speaking, what could be more high-minded than that?
This blogger lost his interest in the ancillary earnings potential of athletes at an early age, seven to be precise. That's about the time I discovered that regular consumption of Wheaties had no impact on my athletic ability whatsoever. No matter which jock's smiling mug was pictured on the box, the uniquely bland cereal was not going to be the Breakfast of Champions when I ate it.
After that, the only athlete endorsements I can tolerate are the funny ones -- guys like Bob Uecker and Peyton Manning. Woods' sense of humor may exist, but it's considerably more private than his love life these days. As to why anyone would think a customer would choose an accounting firm because Tiger's a good golfer, I dunno. Adam Smith and Sigmund Freud don't know either.
I am however, a fan of history. And if anyone thinks that this contretemps will hurt Woods' earning potential or the Tiger Empire's quarterly reports, golf history says they are as wrong as wrong can be.
The prototypical athlete as marketing machine was, of course, Arnold Palmer. He basically invented the athlete-as-tycoon business model based on nothing but his own astonishing popularity. Assuming he was conservatively invested all these years, the miracle of compound interest means Palmer is still richer than Woods, too.
Palmer's popularity extended to both sexes. While genuinely devoted in his fashion to his late wife Winnie, Palmer had what was once called a roving eye. That he had affairs and one-night stands on a regular basis was no secret in the little world of golf, and, by extension, in the little world of upper-echelon corporate America that was signing Arnie to all those endorsement deals.
Palmer's philandering is now accepted historical fact, not sordid rumor. It has affected his standing as a legend of American sports and universally beloved icon not one teeny bit. Palmer's in his 80s, and he's STILL doing commercials.
"Athlete fools around on road" is not news, not to me anyway. Not even if the athlete is Tiger Woods. Not even if the athlete wife looks like Erin Woods. It may be less news to the public in general than the media thinks, too.
A Wish, Not a Forecast
This probably won't happen, but it sure would make me happy if the final score of tonight's Patriots-Saints game was along the lines of 13-6, no matter which team won. I am now starting to root for whatever outcome makes a week of pregame analysis look stupidest.
Also, it would be fun to hear Jon Gruden try to explain WHY neither team could score.
The Law of Diminishing Interest
As there have been every Saturday since Labor Day weekend, there are approximately 20 college football games on TV today available via my cable television service. There is almost no chance I will watch any of them from start to finish, despite a happy lack of any pressing errands preventing me from doing so.
It happens every late fall. As college football's season goes on, my attention tends to go elsewhere. It's a direct mathematical relationship. To take an extreme case, next Saturday will be the "biggest" college game of 2009 -- Florida vs. Alabama for the SEC championship. I'll watch, but if there was an NFL game on opposite it, I would not, even if the Lions were in the NFL game.
The problem is, the closer the college season gets to its endpoint (s), the more the sport's complete absurdity becomes apparent to those of us lucky enough to live in a community with other sports entertainment options. By late November, the BCS always stands revealed as a "competition" as crooked as an Albanian minor-league soccer match. By late November, one realizes college ball is a sport which ends in a prolonged series of exhibition games. By late December, the bowls are the background noise and sights of the holidays -- the exact equivalent of the Christmas Muzak played at the mall.
My theory is, after the final gun of the Harvard-Yale game, college football is over for another year. And if I lived in a town where it wasn't, I'd move.
Game-Time Decision: A Thanksgiving Day True Story
It was the smartest play I ever saw a football coach call, and I was the only one who saw him do it.
The first rule of covering a Massachusetts high school Thanksgiving Day game is get there very early if you want the shelter of the press box and, even more important, a decent parking space. This is especially the case when it's a certified Big Game between traditional powerhouses battling for a Super Bowl berth in a game that's been talked about since September (no names will be used in this tale, but if anyone can correctly determine the schools and date, let me know, as I admire knowledge).
I was in the press box at 8 a.m. for the 10:15 kickoff. At the far side of the box, a group of adults were talking in the low, urgent tones that mean a genuine crisis is underway. One of them was the home team coach.
As a professional snoop, I went to Defcon-4, willing myself invisible a la Wade Boggs while subtly, I hoped, moving a seat or two towards the conversation. What was the problem. Quarterback's big brother come back from college and take him out drinking last night? Offensive line flunk a geometry test en masse?
Oh, no, it was much worse than those potential issues. The coach had a choice on his plate that makes 4th and 2 from your own 28 against the Colts seem less difficult than the Jumble puzzle in the paper. The National Anthem had been overbooked. There were two singers for one song -- and both were players' moms. Important players' moms.
Months ago, it seems, some school administrator had contracted the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner before the Thanksgiving Day game to Mom A, who had had some sort of low-level entertainment career in a past life. In the meantime, Mom B had done the honors before all the team's other home games, all of which they'd won in a so-far undefeated season, and, of course, assumed SHE would sing before the year's biggest game. As it became clear during my eavesdropping, so did the team -- but not the administrator.
This is just the sort of inconsequential nonissue that can tie the average Massachusetts suburban community into a bitter knot of bad feeling for, oh, a decade or so. Neither Mom was in on the discussion, but their advocates made it plain they both wanted to sing VERY badly.
Consider the parameters of the coach's call. He was faced with either making a liar out of his immediate superior at the school, or altering a cherished pregame ritual of his team of hyperemotional adolescent males 15 seconds before their (and his) most important game ever. And whichever Mom he picked, the other might tell her important player son that the coach was a jerk at an inopportune moment -- like an hour before kickoff.
It is rare one sees true genius at work. The coach did Solomon one better. He didn't split the baby in half, he made it twins. Within minutes, he proposed the following compromise. Mom B would perform the National Anthem as she had all season. But before that, Mom A would take the microphone and lead the crowd in God Bless America. A double helping of patriotism never hurt any pregame ceremony.
The coach's play call was an elegant solution to his complex problem. But that paled next to his execution of the call. It took this leader of men AND women less than five minutes to sell the plan to both Moms -- and they were all smiles when he finished. Confronted with a "distraction" before the supreme professional moment of his life, our hero with a headset became Knute Rockne and Henry Kissinger rolled into one.
It gives me pleasure still to report that the coach's team won the ensuing game with a "miracle" touchdown on the final play. If virtue isn't going to be rewarded on Thanksgiving, when will it be? My enduring professional regret was that the conventions of daily journalism and the useful rule that you shouldn't embarrass anyone when covering high school sports meant I had to write about the game, not the drama which preceded it.
But now, to not coin a phrase, you know the rest of the story. And I wish the happiest of Thanksgivings to players, coaches and moms from all high schools everywhere. My life, and all life, would be so much duller without you.
The Beautiful Scam
Here's a stumper. How the hell do you do fix a soccer game, anyway? Try not to score?
The front page of today's "New York Times" tells me that 15 people have been arrested in Germany for fixing a whole bunch of soccer matches, including a few Champions League fixtures (if you're not familiar with the sport, that's fixing the highest level of European competition, roughly akin to a bag job in an NFL playoff game). Authorities hinted darkly at major revelations to come, and I certainly hope they're not teasing us.
Many international soccer players are paid as much or more as U.S. star athletes. But many more are not. The Champions League contains clubs from small Eastern European countries and from the former Soviet Union where all of life is a racket, let alone sports, and where the value of the national currency means a player's salary won't buy lunch outside his native land. So motive and opportunity for fixing is there. Means, however, I just don't get.
In a sport where scores are few and far between, and the percentage of scores that take place entirely by accident is quite high, fixing games would seem to be a high-risk venture. You have the goalkeeper and a linesman on the pad, and some knucklehead turns in the own goal that sends you fleeing to parts unknown one step ahead of the bookies' legbreakers. I really don't see how a fixed soccer match would be a sure thing unless one had all 22 players for both sides and their coaches and the refs in on the fix -- which sounds like it doesn't offer much return on investment.
Apparently I'm wrong, however, at least according to German authorities. The article states that match fixing is a soccer commonplace, because of all the money gambled on the sport. That's where I really step off the train. The entire world must have a serious gambling problem if it's daft enough to bet money on a sport where 0-0 games are the norm. Worse yet, the end of the article (by the way, readers, the best part of most newspaper stories come at the end) reveals that "Asian gambling rings" fix matches involving "part time professionals" in "lower levels of the game."
That is to say, gamblers in Asia are able to get down millions of dollars in bets on semi-pro soccer games. Where have those books been all my life? People in Guangdong province are wagering heavily on Latvian minor leaguers? People bet on games that aren't on TV? And I thought U.S. plungers who stay up to try and get even on Mountain West Conference tilts had issues.
Oddest of all, the news that the world's most popular sport is crooked is only soccer's second-biggest scandal this week. The biggest, and the world's biggest news story, in fact, was the hand ball turned in by French star Thierry Henry which led to the winning goal in a match between France and Ireland to qualify for next year's World Cup.
Hitting the ball with your hand is, of course, soccer's primal sin. Henry did it, and the ref didn't call it. Video replay (which of course soccer doesn't use in officiating) indicated the ref must have been on his cell phone to an Asian gambling ring to have missed the call.
But then, the same thing happened approximately 47 times in the 2009 baseball playoffs, and we don't think umps are crooked -- just incompetent. That would appear to be the case here. FIFA, the sport's ruling body, is ignoring the resulting fuss with a pompous arrogance David Stern can only envy.
Meanwhile, riots continue in Cairo over Egypt's loss to Algeria in ITS World Cup qualifying match. But soccer riots will only be news when one takes place in Chicago.
All in all, it was a great week for one of my primary theories of sports. Soccer has enormous fan appeal as long as you don't have to watch the damn games.
Another, but Shorter, Football Risk-Reward Post
The following post is not intended as criticism of a trade that took place in September. I defended that trade as beneficial to the Patriots at the time, and I still believe that.
Last night in the fourth quarter was the first time this season I found myself thinking, "You know, Richard Seymour would sure come in handy right about now."
Risk Management Is What People in Suits Call Gambling
The math professors, Internet smart-alecks, and other football quants who are always writing about how the numbers show that coaches should go for it more often on fourth and short now know why coaches mostly don't.
Bill Belichick chose to go for it on fourth and two with the game in the balance last night. The Pats' subsequent failure to convert and the Colts' even-more-subsequent 35-34 victory means that decision was and will continue to be the subject of some talk, especially hereabouts. It being a second-guesser's universe, the call is destined to go down in history as the equivalent of putting one's life savings in a big chuck of Bear, Stearns stock in January, 2008. The nice prudent punt that would have given Peyton Manning the ball needing to go 70 yards in two minutes to win will be held up as an example of why the phrase "conventional wisdom" does contain that last word.
The second guess is as overwrought as those "damn the torpedoes" equations arguing that teams essentially don't need punters at all. Calls that don't work aren't always bad calls. Math and the in-game human circumstances facing Belichick were on the side of the decision he made. They just didn't justify the size of the bet he made with the call.
It is, in a way, a tribute to the Pats' coach that he ignored the primal reason 999 out of 1000 NFL head coaches would have punted when he did not. Belichick did not start his decision-making process with the question, "What happens if this doesn't work?" Most coaches' strategic choices in all sports are in effect decisions to postpone the decision. Play for time, extend the game and put the burden of winning or losing on the other guy. Playing the percentages means postponing them.
Belichick, to his credit, saw the situation from the positive side of the equation. Faced with the choice of having Tom Brady try to make one play to win, or trying to stop Manning from making five or six plays to keep from losing, he went with his best player as the preferred option.
Belichick forced the issue. THIS will be the play that decides the game. He went all-in with a good hand, with aces, and the Colts defense cracked them. In the World Series of Poker last week, Phil Ivey went all-in with A-K against a guy he perceived correctly had Q-J, and got toasted on the flop. Nobody then said, "Boy, that's the worst call of Ivey's career." They said, "that's gambling." Poker is a game built entirely on percentages, and the smartest people in it know that the ultimate truth about percentages is that they're ratios, not guarantees.
And yet, while I understand Belichick's decision, and it would be satisfyingly contrarian to defend it wholeheartedly, I cannot. Based on the Pats' performance during the game to that point, I believe the coach underrated the viability of the prudent punt. In other words, he dissed his defense more than was warranted.
At that moment, the Colts had had 13 possessions. Four had been shockingly easy, and more relevantly, quick, touchdown drives. But seven had ended in punts, and two in interceptions. Leaving aside how much more difficult game-winning TD drives are than drives for game-winning field goals, the Pats' D already had a better than 67 percent success rate against Manning. I believe Belichick let the memory of Indianapolis' last possession, one of those very quick scores, affect his judgment.
But then, he was there, looking into the eyes and feeling the collective will of the defense. If Belichick truly thought those guys were gassed, I can't argue with that assessment. I would say, however, that a precedent has been set, and not a good one from the Pats' point of view. Game plan meetings for the Jets this week, and for all future Pats' opponents, are going to begin with the statement, "Belichick doesn't believe his defense can stop us when it counts." That's an exaggeration, as Manning does not lead just any NFL offense, but it has a grain or two of truth. The Pats are going to win with offense, and they know it. Imbalanced football teams are easier to prepare for -- and to beat.
Or maybe I'm overthinking this entirely (gosh, it's great the way the Internet has space for equivocation). Perhaps an extraordinarily competitive man got caught up in the frenzy of an extraordinary competition. Maybe Belichick just WANTED to gamble.
After Pickett's Charge, another late-game play call that didn't pan out for the visiting team, three Confederate generals had three different postgame thoughts, all of which can be applied to to Belichick's decision.
Richard Ewell, commander II Corps, said "It took a dozen errors to lose the battle of Gettysburg, and I committed a good many of them."
No one point loss hinges on a single play. Two turnovers in the Colts' end zone and wretched time management (which is on Belichick) were as responsible for the Pats' defeat as the choice to go for it.
James Longstreet, commander I Corps, said of his immediate superior and commanding general, "When the hunt was up, his aggressiveness became overwhelming."
Robert E. Lee, commander Army of Northern Virginia, said "It is all my fault. I thought my men were invincible."
No men are invincible. Not even Hall of Fame quarterbacks. That's why punters have steady jobs.
Not Fooled Again, Just Bored Again
Some time back, before the market value of their target audience's homes fell by 70 percent of so, concert promoters assembled a few 18-wheelers full of $50 bills and visited a few formerly well-known musicians. Their proposition was simple: A Jefferson Airplane reunion tour.
The idea was promptly rejected by Grace Slick with the immortal words, "What could be more pathetic than a bunch of old farts up on stage playing rock and roll?"
So we can cross Gracie off the list of performers we'll be seeing at future Super Bowl halftime shows. The guys (and they're all guys) who run the NFL are positive EVERYONE wants to see Medicare-eligible rock stars of yesteryear strut their stuff between Doritos commercials.
The Who, or rather, Roger Daltrey, Peter Townshend and two other guys who aren't The Who, will be the halftime act at Super Bowl XLIV next February. Having once, very briefly, been a performing musician, I can't hold this against them. Big star or scuffling minor-league wannabe, work is work. But it's sad anyway. The reason the remnants of one of the greatest bands in rock history are playing this gig is because they're SAFE. The NFL knows that "sex, drugs and rock and roll" has seamlessly degraded into "light beer, rock and roll and NO sex."
Let's face it. "Pictures of Lily" is not going to be on the band's song list at the Super Bowl. The Who will play only their songs used as TV themes and in television commercials. Great songs, each and every one -- but also a shout-out to their audience that "you shouldn't feel bad about your life. These guys sold out, too."
Most of all from the league's perspective, the Who will show no human nipples. Since the Great Wardrobe Malfunction of Super Bowl XXXVIII, (which I missed due to being at the game, hundreds of feet above the field in the press box), the performers listed below have done the Super Bowl halftime show (capsule reviews attached).
Super Bowl XXXIX: Paul McCartney (they're great songs, and he's an old trouper).
Super Bowl XL: The Rolling Stones (sad beyond words).
Super Bowl XLI: Prince (pretty good, actually).
Super Bowl XLII: Tom Petty (meh).
Super Bowl XLIII: Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band (a good, hokey halftime show. He grokked the Super Bowl).
The alert reader will note the most obvious fact about this list. No breasts. All the performers were guys, older guys. No danger of illicit flesh French-frying the brains of America's psychopathic and repressed religious fundamentalist groups. Nothing to divert America from watching more Doritos commercials. He or she will also note that the acts, even Prince, have always had predominately white audiences.
The even more alert reader will add The Who to the list and note that half of the acts selected to perform at our country's biggest sports event are furriners -- Brits to be precise. It was an insult to the history of rock that the Stones did the Super Bowl in Detroit. Berry Gordy should've sued. Holy cow, is Aretha Franklin too sexy for pro football?
I have some sympathy for the NFL here. Super Bowl halftime shows shouldn't be controversial. They're just part of the hoopla of our weirdest national holiday, and the entertainers shouldn't muscle in trying to make themselves the big story. But the law of diminishing returns is going to kick in with a vengeance on the "rock stars of yesteryear" policy before too long.
The years are going to keep getting more yester, and the acts deemed big enough for the Super stage are going to start looking bad and performing worse. That section of the audience too young to recall The Who (or whoever) in its prime will conclude, not without reason, that the NFL is culturally clueless. That section that, like me, is old enough to remember how amazing those acts were in their prime will only get depressed. Might turn us off Doritos for life.
Happily, there's more to popular music than stadium rock. The list of entertainers, young and old, who could do a terrific Super Bowl halftime show is a long one. You want young? Taylor Swift or Beyonce would get the job done and then some. You want old? Merle Haggard could do a Super Bowl show. Or Tony Bennett. There wouldn't be a musician in the world who wouldn't want to be in either of those guys' backup bands for that gig.
He's really old, and performs sitting in a chair these days, and is not in good health. But it would be a tremendous event if B.B. King had 12 minutes of the Super Bowl to play Lucille before the tens of millions of Americans who have never been lucky enough to see him perform.
The odds of any of those acts appearing in future Super Bowls range from long to theoretical mathematical concepts. The National Football League IS culturally clueless. I mean, look at Roger Goodell. Is that a man who has ever rocked? Hell, I'll bet he's never even swung.
So I have a backup to the future plan for the halftime show, one I proposed to scoffing league officials over a decade ago.
Bring back the Grambling band.
A Choice Not an Echo, or, The Failure of Media Deregulation
At approximately 3:30 p.m., the Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti program on WBZ-FM featured Bill Simmons discussing his feud with Glenn Ordway.
A quick flick of the radio to WEEI-AM revealed that at that same moment, Glenn Ordway was discussing his feud with Bill Simmons. Sports talk about sports talk about sports talkers. If "metaidiocy" wasn't a word before this afternoon, it is now.
Ordway and Simmons are highly successful media personalities and have the knack for self-promotion that goes with that territory (that's no knock, it's a necessary skill for their business). Fake feuds have a long and almost honorable history in show business hype. Ordinarily, I'd be inclined to shrug off this pointless war of easily bruised egos as just another day's work by two guys who are hardcore marketers.
But I can't shake the feeling they mean it. Ordway and Simmons have hurt each other's feelings. If true, that's too bad. But why drag innocent sports fans who only want to hear about Jason Varitek's option year into it? It's always the children who suffer in these fights.
Or rather, it's always the children who have them.
World Series, Part 2: The Victors
Philadelphia sports fans are taught from a very early age to despise all other teams -- and their own, too. So Yankee-hating has always seemed weird to me.
I can understand why Red Sox fans hate the Yanks. They are rivals for the same prize each year. I can see why Mets hate the Yanks. Being a perennial number two in the same racket in the same town can blot the sunshine out of life. Take it from a former Herald employee.
But everyone else? I don't get why fans in someplace like Seattle or Houston would be a professional Yankee-hater. I know those folks have existed since the 1920s, and some of it has to do with our nation's extremely conflicted feelings about money, power, and our largest city, so as an American Studies major I understand. As a sports follower, I don't. You root for teams you play to fail, but if they're not on the schedule, who cares about them?
When it comes to individual Yankees, the hatred makes even less sense. Who could possibly dislike Hideki Matsui, or Jorge Posada, or Mariano Rivera? (Not even the most zealous Sox fans dislike Mo, although they all fear him). It isn't Derek Jeter's fault Tim McCarver likes him so much. A-Rod is the most neurotic superstar of our time, and people razz him mostly because they know it bothers him. That is legitimate fan gamesmanship. It doesn't change the reality of his greatness as a player.
Successful team/athlete hatred exists in all sports (except golf and tennis. Must be a WASP thing). The simplest and best way to see its stupidity is to look at it from the other side of the telescope. Patriots fans complain, and rightly so, about the cardboard cutout stereotype of Bill Belichick held by fans and media from other markets. They should switch to the Red Sox fan side of their brain and examine their A-Rod opinions. It's possible those are caricatures of reality as well.
Pressed to the wall, your Yankee hater will say that his primary objection to the franchise is how it "buys championships." The Yankees commit the cardinal sin of exploiting their inherent economic advantages to win. It's not fair.
No, it's not. It's not fair that New York City has more of the good things of life such as arts, restaurants, centers of learning, etc. than your town just because it's bigger, either. But anyone who complained about that would be regarded as a first-degree crank. Why should sports be different?
(Red Sox fans, who root for a team that is second to none in the ruthless monetizing of that love, should be pelted with rotten fruit if THEY complain about the Yankees spending habits.)
Of all the Yankee-haters, there is no greater poseur than the twit who says he hates the team for socioeconomic reasons; the old "rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel" idea first posited in the Great Depression. It was bullshit then, and it's bullshit now. Let me tell you a story about that.
In the spring and summer of 1987, I had the most unusual sportswriting gig of my life. I was Yankee beat writer for the "Village Voice." At that time, the giant figures of American leftist political journalism who had helped found the Voice were still at the paper, people like Jack Newfield and Nat Hentoff.
And almost all of them were sick Yankees fans!! These men, whom I grew up admiring to the max, sought me out to discuss the Yanks, which was flattering if bizarre. It was also hilarious. This citadel of rebellion against the American status quo rooted for the ballclub that exemplifies the status quo.
Of course, ideology had nothing to do with. The lefty Yankee fans were fans for the same reason almost everyone is -- it's how they were brought up. Which brings me back to my opening paragraph.
I hated seeing the Yankees win the Series. But that hatred had nothing to do with them. The Yankees don't suck. Losing does.
World Series, Part I: The Vanquished
There's no strength or will here to give the Phillies a hometown boo. They didn't earn one. Sometimes, losing is just a no-fault bummer.
The Phillies had three excellent chances to seize control of the World Series against the Yankees; at the start of Game Two, when they took a 3-0 lead in Game Three, and when they tied up Game Four in the bottom of the eighth. They couldn't take advantage of any of 'em. Playing uphill is no way to beat that opponent.
It is part of the grandeur and misery of postseason baseball that any weakness a team had in the regular season will inevitably reveal itself at the worst possible -- usually fatal -- moment in the playoffs. It even happened to New York, when Joe Girardi's lust for overmanaging cost them a win against the Angels.
The Phillies' weaknesses in 2009 were, in order of appearance, Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge. They each had a shot to be a Series hero, and were goats instead. This is sad, but hardly surprising.
Analyzing my feelings about the Series today, I was surprised at my relative lack of them. Oh, I was disappointed last night, and this morning, but my predominant sentiment was a kind of washed out blur of blah. I think it's baseball overdose. The playoffs are so long, if a fan commits to them, he or she is going to experience far too many highs and lows to keep them all straight. It takes a whole heap of energy to get twisted up over the failure of what one knows damn well is a 10,000 to 1 shot at a comeback. Better to surrender to the void when Hideki Matsui shoves you into it.
Besides, too much sorrow would be an unseemly memorial for the 2009 Phils. Bitching that the defending World Series champion only returned to the Series and couldn't win again is the kind of behavior that ought to get one thrown out of the better class of barrooms. Then there's this: by any rational analysis, the Phillies shouldn't even have made the playoffs in the first place.
Hamels and Lidge were the primary reasons the Phillies won the championship in 2008. They both pretty much sucked all year. Here is a team that could not depend on its number one starter or its closer from Opening Day on. And it made the World Series anyway. SOMEBODY, make that about 23 other somebodies, on the roster must've played his/their asses off.
And so they did, from start to flawed finish (it's hard to hit 11 home runs in six games and lose 4 of them, but the Phillies did). They were an admirable ballclub. I'm glad I spent almost my free time since October 1 admiring them.