What Price Nostalgia? Comcast Corp. Will Soon Know
This coming Saturday will be the ultimate throwback promotion in sports. The biggest events on the calendar will be a horse race and a prizefight, meaning that a fan can experience a whole day in which he or she is living in 1935.
First up, the Kentucky Derby, the only horse race in America that still attracts non-racing fans in large numbers both in person and on TV. This is partially because the Derby is a truly thrilling event, and mostly because it takes on the first Saturday in May, From the swells in the clubhouse to the spring break extension for Midwest colleges in the infield to the folks at home making their own mint juleps and running betting pools, it's an excuse to have the first good outdoor party of the year, the same way the Super Bowl serves as a party to forget February has just started.
For TV viewers who don't bet, the Derby is free. Watching a horse race on which one has not bet, however, is kind of missing the point. It's like watching the movie on an airplane flight but not paying for the headphones.
For the nightcap, I term I use in all its senses, there's the Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather fight scheduled for 11 p.m. Eastern, meaning probably 11:45 Eastern. This encounter deserves the title Fight of the Century, if only because it's taken most of the 21st century to get these two into the same ring. It has been relentlessly promoted by corporate entities ranging from ESPN (understandable) to Air Asia (huh?). These two boxers are also about the only ones sports fans who aren't fight fans (those under 85) have ever heard of.
The fight is expected to gross as much as $250 million. It damn well ought to, seeing as high-definition pay per view will be $99.55, thank you very much. This means the alliance of HBO and Showtime producing the program can hit that number with an audience about the same size as that of "America's Test Kitchen" on PBS.
In keeping with the day's nostalgia theme, Pacquiao-Mayweather will honor one of boxing's oldest traditions -- it's a ripoff. In 2009, it might've been a great fight worth your $100, the classic matchup of Pacquiao the aggressive slugger and Mayweather the gifted boxer. Alas, Manny hit the far side of the hill about the same time Mitt Romney's campaign began to get going. Mayweather can still duck punches, and Pacquiao can't throw them as well. Since the prime attraction of the bout is the desire of normal folks to see horrible person Mayweather get his block knocked off (a desire Mayweather exploits with great skill), there are going to be a lot of disappointed and poorer fans at the fight's end.
Gosh, that sounds familiar. In 1935, it happened every Saturday night in every American town big enough to have an auditorium. We've come a long way since then. Progress means that the athletes in our most popular sport wear helmets, so we can pretend their brains aren't getting scrambled.
We have not made so much progress that Floyd Mayweather isn't a very, very rich man. Throwback Night promotions always sell.
Political Show Business Trial
The White House Correspondents' Dinner was last Saturday night. As is the quaint/dismal custom, Barack Obama fulfilled one of the duties of the office of President not thought of by James Madison and performed a comedy monologue. By most nonpartisan accounts it was a reasonably good effort for an amateur.
Comedy is hard. Some Presidents are going to be better at it than others. I don't think it's fair the Leader of the Free World is expected to entertain a group he or she would rather see placed under mass arrest in a popular art form for which they are ill-suited. It ought to be their choice.
If the President is a really good dancer, he could do "Once in Love With Amy" a la Ray Bolger. If she was an amateur magician as a kid, it could be card tricks. An opera excerpt? Ventriloquism? Sure, why not? I personally would like to see the Chief of State try a little improv, just to hear the audience suggestions.
An informed public being the bedrock of democracy, I demand that the interlocutors of the upcoming 12,671,136 presidential debates ask each and every candidate just how they plan to entertain the tuxedoed masses at the 2017 WHCD. We're bound to learn more about them than from boilerplate blah on trade policy.
I make it even money as to whether Rand Paul or Ted Cruz is the first to promise lion taming.
The Human Drama of Athletic Competition with the Humanity Taken Out
Tiger Woods duck hooked his drive on the 13th hole at the Masters yesterday and said a very bad word. At a rough estimate, of the million or so other Americans who were playing golf at that moment in this vast land, at least 10,000 were saying the very same thing.
Yet within moments, CBS commentator Ian Baker-Finch was given the heinous duty of apologizing to any of the TV audience who might've been offended. How much better had he chosen to end his career in a blaze of glory and said, "to anyone offended, fuck off!"
Nobody watches the Masters who isn't a golf fan, and there are no golf fans who don't play golf. Therefore there was nobody watching the tournament who hasn't either cussed at a bad shot, heard some other golfer do it, or both. Swearing and golf are inseparable companions, just like the sport's other good buddies, drinking and gambling. There were cartoons about golfers cursing in 19th century editions of the English magazine "Punch." There are probably 15th century Scottish woodcuts about it.
There's never unanimity in our society, so I'm sure there were some real life Ned Flanderses out there who were offended, for the sake of the children, of course. Holier-than-thou is never about a person claiming superiority over their fellow beings to justify the sticks up their posteriors.. No, indeed.
I'm also guessing the offended were few in number. As the golf industry knows to its sorrow, most golfers are adults, make that adults-plus. Adults know that in the heat of competition, athletes get stressed. People under stress have been known to say things they might later regret.
In a sane world, Woods' swearing would've passed unmentioned on the air. But ass-covering is one of broadcasting's prime directives. Baker-Finch's apology was CBS saying, "it's not our fault."
Except it was. Woods didn't carry a bullhorn in his bag yesterday. It was CBS's microphones which were close enough to pick up his vocal anguish, microphones that are part of TV's inexorable drive to make sports on the tube as close to being there as possible, except better because you don't have to drive to the game, match or tournament.
That's a worthy goal, or would be if CBS (and all the other networks) didn't want to have sports both ways. They want to immerse the viewer in sports reality, but they also want that reality to be fake, to be the world of Chip Hilton books for boys, not the world of Lance Armstrong, Floyd Mayweather and, oh, yeah, Tiger Woods. This desire is particularly acute at the Masters, which CBS presents with a cheesy, smarmy solemnity which is completely at odds with the experience of the tournament in person.
Don't want to hear Woods cuss? Get the mike away from him. Don't want Bill Belichick or Gregg Popovich to blow off your inane in-game interviews? Stop doing them. Sports isn't "NCIS" or "Modern Family." People watch because a game, match or tournament is an event beyond the control of anyone but the participants.
At least, we hope it's beyond TV's control. Some days I'm not so sure.