Private Football

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My boyfriend
thinks I like the big guys in tight pants.

The truth is
that I watched the Super Bowl for the commercials. Really.

If we are to
believe market researchers and journalists, millions of other people
tuned in for the same reason.

Such information
begs the question: Is the Super Bowl simply a vehicle for selling
Bud Light, Whoppers, Pepsi Light and any number of other products?
Is that what all of sports has come to?

Let's hope
so.

Gary Wills
and other "Where-have-you-gone-Joe DiMaggio?" commentators
will undoubtedly cry "For Shame!" To them, I say that
we may well live to see the day when Super Bowl or World Series
contestants will represent Microsoft or USX rather than Seattle
or Pittsburgh. And that will be a good thing, for everyone — whether
or not he or she is a sports fan.

First of all,
there is the question of corporate sponsorship. It grows larger
and more blatant every year. In fact, for many teams — particularly
in smaller markets like Pittsburgh — corporate largesse accounts
for a larger share of revenue than ticket sales. In addition, Anhauser-Busch,
Burger King and other companies paid more for one minute of airtime
than most teams gross from their box offices for any game they play.

Instead of
pleading for bond issues that coerce you and me into paying more
taxes for new stadia and players' salaries, sports franchise owners
and league executives should try to extract as much as they can
from beer, soda and burger companies.

In my youth,
I worked in marketing. I still know a few people who are connected
to it and related industries like public relations and advertising.
They all say that whatever money companies like Pepsi spend to advertise
in sporting events is repaid many times over in sales. So there
would be no shortage of corporations that would want to hawk their
wares in a national spectacle like the Super Bowl or World Series.

Speaking of
spectacle: You probably remember the Burger King ad better than
any particular play of Sunday's game. Such promotional campaigns
can only help teams and games attract more spectators — many of
whom, of course, will buy the products and use the services advertised
during the games. The presence of such advertisers can, in these
and other ways, only help those teams whose markets are shrinking
or whose fans are losing interest.

The Wills and
their ilk would undoubtedly say that corporate sponsorship dilutes
or deletes the identity of teams and athletes. Teams began as a
way to embody local civic pride and most fans root for the "hometown"
team, according to such commentators.

To which I
say: How many New Yorkers — or Yankees — play for the New York Yankees?
This question — which seems merely rhetorical — would have been
just as valid to ask in the era before free agency, when players
were bound to teams unless they were sold or traded. Teams like
the Yankees used to pay scores of scouts to scour the countryside
in search of the next Babe Ruth. Today these same teams deploy scouts
to Latin America and Asia (in the case of baseball), Northern and
Eastern Europe (hockey) and just about everyplace else (basketball)
as well as the farms, colleges and factories of North America. Ruth
himself came from Baltimore; DiMaggio was a son of a San Francisco
Bay fisherman who emigrated from Italy. Yet both are indelibly burnished
in people's minds as New York Yankees.

Very few teams
employ more than a couple of players who are natives of the region
the teams represent. One notable exception has been the Montreal
Canadiens of the National Hockey League. Twenty-five years ago,
they were to hockey what the Yankees are to baseball and Manchester
United is to soccer. But the Canadiens were more than simply the
best team in hockey; they represented Francophone North America
to the world. Throughout its history, Quebecois players who grew
up rooting for their local heroes have dominated the team's rosters.

Today les
Habitants have kept up their tradition of French-speaking rosters,
but not of winning. The franchise that won the Stanley Cup in fourteen
of the twenty-four seasons from 1956 through 1979 has won only two
such championships since. It continues to recruit the best French-speaking
hockey talents, but it cannot keep them through their entire careers
as it did in the days when it dominated the sport.

The chief reason
for this is that the team is based in a shrinking marketplace. Montreal
used to be the second-largest city in North America; now it is only
the third-largest city in Canada. At least fifteen cities in the
US have larger populations than Montreal. Worse, its metropolitan
region has shrunk at an even faster pace than the city itself. Today
about forty US metropolitan areas — as well as those of Toronto
and Vancouver — dwarf metropolitan Montreal. To top it all off,
the city would've shrunk even more quickly had it not been for immigration
from other French-speaking countries. These fellow Francophones,
however, do not seem to share the native Quebecois passion for the
game and the team.

Small markets
like Montreal may incubate talent, but the larger markets pay top
dollar for it when it blooms. Eventually, small-market teams may
fold or move to larger locales (as baseball's Expos did last year).
In short, they all follow the money.

Which is exactly
what all of professional sports should do. It seems that the money
— or at least that which is available for grown men playing kids'
games — is in large makers of consumer products and providers of
services. So why not let them pay for, and sponsor athletes and
teams?

This is exactly
what's been happening for decades in bicycle racing and in NASCAR.
Every cyclist in the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Vuelta de
Espana — the sport's top three events — pedals for a team sponsored
by a floor-tile maker, cellular service provider or some other company.
While the name of one company appears in the team's name, there
are usually others who've helped the cause of the riders. Even Lance
Armstrong's US Postal Service team was not funded solely by its
eponymous government agency: A number of companies, including software
providers and bicycle component makers, also contributed money.
I'm not so familiar with NASCAR, but their cars and jackets — like
cyclists' jerseys — are festooned with the names of corporate sponsors.

So,
could we be seeing the future of big guys with tight pants in skinny
young men in lycra shorts? If you believe in free markets and low
taxes, you should hope so.

February
7, 2006

Justine
Nicholas [send her mail]
teaches English at the City University of New York.

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