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Private Football

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