Thursday, 3 November 2016


Game Over?

About 11 years ago I wandered into a pub in Gloucester, U.K. The televised match was Chelsea playing Liverpool. The joint was packed with smoking drinkers wearing red or blue, crawling infants and madness. I hurried back to my hotel to rouse my brother from his nap and join me. I said, ‘You’ve got to see this.’

I remember a mild September Sunday in Missoula, MT in 2014. Ann and I were exploring the somewhat quaint downtown. We passed a pub that might have been called the Black Hat, or maybe the Top Hat. The sidewalk sandwich board outside the entrance had no specials to entice us, the chalk scrawl simply read: ‘Bears – Packers: Nuff said.’ We went in. The jersey colours had changed and there were neither children nor smoke but it was déjà vu all over again.

Two different countries. Two different decades. Two different sports pulling people into similar venues an ocean apart because the game was on television. In its infancy television was like idly complaining about the weather to a stranger waiting with you at your bus stop, a great unifier because everybody watched the same show at the same time. There was no choice until cable networks and specialty channels began to populate the spectrum. Ted Turner’s concept of a 24-hour all news channel suddenly didn’t seem so crazy, and his Atlanta baseball club cultivated a national following as providers of 162 games of content to his fledgling network. Our viewing habits were altered in one other crucial way: an advance in home electronics enabled us to record broadcasts to view on our own schedule and not a network’s, and glory be, we could fast-forward through commercials.

As the medium fragmented like a jigsaw puzzle swept off a tabletop, I came to agree with media buyers who posited that pro sports in real time was an advertiser’s best televised bet. Even more so with the enhanced picture of high-definition TV. True, this same digital technology permitted a savvy fan to watch a game with a reality lag of a few minutes allowing them to speed through commercials but most couch creatures are as lazy as the rest of us and can’t be bothered to take the extra set-up step. The beauty of the sports nut demographic is its wide-ranging skew, created and nurtured in part by the calculated marketing efforts of the various leagues. Beyond the realm of beer and trucks lay a dreamland littered with flushable baby wipes and adult diapers.

Now it seems the lovingly arranged marriage between television and pro sports might be headed for the rocks. Canadians are well aware that Rogers Communications’ ownership of National Hockey League telecasts is not paying off. Excuses are rife. Viewers didn’t warm to the hipster host and his expert panel. Clubs north of 49 are not competitive. The Sports Network’s Canadian Football League numbers are down but only because the new rules result in a penalty flag on just about every play from scrimmage. Shockingly, television ratings for the impervious monolith that is the National Football League, the cartel that can play out its entire schedule in empty stadiums because of network money, have dropped by double digits seven weeks into its season. Its established stars are on the wane and its new ones take a knee during the national anthem.

This year’s World Series is a modest bucking of the overall and baseball’s own downward trend. Eyeball numbers have almost, almost climbed back to the levels recorded in 2009. The boost makes a fine argument for the merit of content. Television was not invented the last time either championship contender won it all. Last night’s epic game seven between Chicago and Cleveland could be a rare ratings bonanza. It requires magic, mojo, juju and voodoo for two long suffering legacy franchises to become good at the same time. Bloated professional sports leagues cannot engineer marquee match-ups for their playoffs, let alone night after prime time night during their interminable regular seasons. Yet they’ve all operated believing that we would watch every game anyway, just in case. But something happened on the way to the bank.

The cornerstone of any vibrant economy is surplus. Surplus creates a supply which is then sold to meet a genuine demand or one created by artifice, advertising, say. Either way, you never give away your assets. There is an advertising corollary to this fundamental principle: never, ever devalue the equity of your brand. In other words, don’t cheapen it. The cola wars go way back. Around the time the Cleveland Indians last won the World Series, you could buy a bottle of Coke for a nickel. You could also instead buy a bottle of Pepsi with that same nickel and enjoy twice the amount of cola. Coke never lowered the price of its product nor increased the volume of its containers. The consumer could not help but conclude that Pepsi was an inferior product even though it provided better value.

In our era, modern times, we are struggling to make sense of the digitization of everything. Certain ramifications and consequences are already apparent but nobody can fathom this disruption’s ultimate angle of repose. It’s entirely possible nothing may ever settle. In my last agency job we were proud to do work for a prestigious salty snack food client. The company’s marketing manager was determined to get his brand into the burgeoning social media conversation. He ignored friendly warnings that his proposed action was something akin to solving the puzzle box in ‘Hellraiser.’ The fellow was dismayed to discover that many of the consumers who bothered to engage with his brand were uncomplimentary. And, gee, well, could the agency address this negativity somehow and, rather awkwardly, gee, there was no budget to correct a supposedly free marketing initiative gone awry that was, in essence, an attempted end run around my employer’s services.

With these two lessons in mind, let us now examine the television contraction of what was once the wide world of sports. Comprehensive highlight packages began to clutter the airwaves in concert with the rise of cable sports networks desperate to fill air time. The assumption of viewer attraction was logical: results were newsworthy; fans would watch a compacted version of what they’d already seen; fans would be curious about games subjected to local blackouts or broadcast in other regions. Inadvertently we were reprogrammed not to endure quarters, halves, periods, innings, time outs and other delays in exchange for witnessing fleeting moments of heartbreak or glory. Time shrunk, fans were no longer required to commit three hours of their time to get the game story and the final score; we could catch the highlights later. The actual games no longer mattered. Only die-hards, the core constituency of any sport or club were motivated to watch meaningless games play themselves out in their entirety.

The blind leagues only recognized the exposure and the promotional potential of the highlight shows, the scene setting for future games. Casual fans would watch the free trailer and pay to see the film, no question. And then along came an unheralded rookie phenom called the Internet. In their frenzy to establish a presence across all platforms the big leagues effectively circumvented their traditional main squeeze, television, by creating their own web sites and commissioning their own apps to show their own highlights, craft their own narratives.

For the home viewer there used to be a cost associated with sports fandom, whether it was a particular television package or a few minutes’ attention for a few commercials. The diluted mini dramas are free now and the peculiar paradox is that there are now more ways than ever to not watch a complete game without turning on the television. And this disconnect, this disruption, has been inadvertently perpetuated by enterprises whose sole goal is to keep us glued to our sets on behalf of their sponsors and partners by providing a form of unscripted entertainment.

No comments:

Post a Comment