From now on I’m putting this space in my column up for sale. And why not? I’m just following the lead of the sports world, where every inch of turf, every minute of airtime, can be had for a price. By Matt Taibbi
From now on I’m putting this space in my column up for sale. And why not? I’m just following the lead of the sports world, where every inch of turf, every minute of airtime, can be had for a price.
by Matt Taibbi
The commercialization of sports hasn’t reached its nadir, and we know this because the inevitable last step still hasn’t happened — that moment when the Browns and the Rockets become the Cleveland E*Trades and the Houston Mennen Speed Sticks, with logo-embossed jerseys to match.
But we’re close. A year removed from its epic collapse, the American economy is forcing the sports business to ever more desperate acts. This is the year when sports commercialization will finally go from being a cute, quintessentially American subplot (poor small-town jock makes it to the big leagues, gets the big hit in the big game, gets rewarded with his face on a Wheaties box) to a disfiguring herpes-like disease that one never stops being aware of and that finally sucks the last bits of joy from following pro sports.
It’s not just the preposterous sponsorship tie-ins you see everywhere, so much so that you can literally consume them (witness the AFC & NFC Stuffed French Toast offered at IHOP — in the shape of a football!). It’s not just that the major leagues have all developed awesomely specialized target-marketing techniques (visit Motherhood.com/probowl for a chance to win $1,000 in NFL-licensed maternity wear!) and found ways to team up with similarly desperate state governments to siphon monies from even-more-desperate poor people (the Dallas Cowboys stand to earn $4.2 million, or enough to pay for Pro Bowlers DeMarcus Ware and Jason Witten, via their scratch lottery partnership with the state of Texas). It’s not even ESPN’s nightly Sell-some-shitCenter broadcasts, with the endless cavalcade of Bud Light Freeze Frames and Burger King King of the Nights and Home Depot College GameDays.
It’s not any of those things individually, but all of them together, hinting that the major sports are closer than ever to the commercial ideal represented by NASCAR — a sport in which a hundred thousand beered-up, suggestible southerners will gather for hours and hours on end to watch a bunch of billboards travel in a circle. I know we’re getting there because I love sports but am beginning to hate watching sports. There are so many goddamn ads and tie-ins now, your skull starts to feel like an echo chamber by the end of a game — and you start inadvertently humming beer-company jingles to yourself, against your will. It is enough to make you want to gouge out your own eyeballs with a spoon and eat them raw.
The first step in dealing with this is to identify the problem. Here’s a short list of the most dangerous contagions in the sports world:
Back in the ’70s, commercials were just a mildly profitable diversion for a few stars, and Joe Namath was considered too self-promoting for doing both his sexually unsettling Beautymist pantyhose ad and the almost-porn Noxzema ad with Farrah Fawcett (Joe: “I’m so excited — I’m gonna get creamed!”). It took two developments to pave the way for the current problem of hideously overexposed sports megastars: one, the explosion of new media outlets, and two, the emergence of the commercial ego of Michael Jordan. Jordan in the 1990s was like the British Empire in the 1800s: The sun literally never set on his brand, as he was virtually guaranteed to be on TV somewhere on Earth, selling something made by indentured Indonesian children. Jordan was a man whose very soul was dressed in Hanes underpants, and he set the standard for future megastars such as Peyton Manning, LeBron James, and Tiger Woods, whose habit of wearing Nike apparel in ads for other products makes him the first two-holes-at-once sports marketer. If you feel you want to jam a tuning fork in your ear if you see a certain athlete’s face even one more time, you’ve probably got Tigeritis.
Nonspontaneous Spontaneous Celebration Disorder
New York Giants nose tackle Jim Burt invented the Gatorade bath in 1985, spontaneously, then gave it up after a year, when he thought the joke had gone stale. But the tradition was kept alive by Bill Parcells and linebacker Harry Carson, who developed the inevitable “relationship” with Gatorade Co., which gave the pair money and free Brooks Brothers suits. Next thing you know, Parcells and Carson are jamming Gatorade into every vein, performing as many as 17 Gatorade baths in a year (80 gallons of Gatorade total). The number of planned “spontaneous celebrations” has since skyrocketed, with the Gatorade bath now having to make room for the “I’m going to Disney World” shtick (foisted on humanity by another Giant, Phil Simms, who sold us out for $75,000). And that sound you heard when Terrell Owens pulled a Sharpie out of his sock and autographed his touchdown ball in a 2002 Monday Night Football game? That was the popping of massive PR-executive boners from coast to coast. What limitless possibilities existed if athletes could be encouraged to openly beg for endorsement contracts by acting like greedy douchebags on live national TV! Owens was rewarded with an endorsement deal, as were a host of other athletes who took the plunge into unilateral high-profile product pimping — most notably soccer player Brandi Chastain, who went from being just another struggling longshoreman-physiqued American career woman to being a multimillion-dollar sex-symbol phenomenon after she stripped to her Nike sports bra in a World Cup game.
The Redundant Sports Commercialoma
Two different subtypes here: There are sports events that are actually commercials, i.e., that were seemingly conceived in order to sell certain products (ESPN’s X Games, a transparent vehicle for transforming teenagers’ allowances into summer homes for Disney executives), and there are the TV programs that have real sports themes but actually exist to sell products (the old EA Sports NFL Matchup, in which apparently shame-resistant grown men Merril Hoge and Ron Jaworski manipulated video-game graphics as part of what putatively was an NFL “analysis” show). This phenomenon has been developing for years. But in the same way the Nazis went from committing isolated, small-scale atrocities in the early and mid-’30s to rolling out vast factories of death, so too has ESPN now moved into the realm of sending whole busloads of athletes and agents straight to hell with this year’s release of X Games 3D: The Movie, a feature-length film about skateboards you should buy and the insufferable narcissistic assholes who promote them. The parents who actually took their children to see X Games 3D — perhaps the most redundantly commercial exercise in the history of American media — should be flogged on national television, preferably at halftime of the Super Bowl.
Creeping Logo Rot
In 2004 Columbia Pictures tried to put Spider-Man logos on the bases (and on the pitching rubber and home plate, before games) for some Major League Baseball contests, only to step back amid protests. Like casino boats that drive out into international waters before starting up the roulette wheels, MLB also sold helmet space to Ricoh for two games played between the Yankees and the Rays in Japan. Watch any TV sports broadcast closely and you will see that every exposed surface that is not actually on the field of play has been sold off and expertly logotyped: Most Major League Baseball teams offer around a dozen “signage” opportunities, from 26-foot rotating “behind-the-plate signage” (guaranteed to appear in that SportsCenter home-run highlight) to “field-level backlit signage” (revealing itself as you follow the foul ball rocketed up the third-base line) to “dugout signage” (for those innocent between-pitches shots of players joking around as they lean over the dugout railing). But of course the holy grail of sports signage is the uniform, and we took a major step in that direction this spring when the NFL permitted teams to put corporate patches on unis during practices. The NBA plans to do the same and has said it continues to “explore” the possibility of ads on game jerseys. It’s only a matter of time before we see LeBron James smiling at a presser at the end of his interminable free-agency saga as he holds up his new EHarmony.com Presents the New York Knicks uniform.
It was bad enough when sports franchises started selling the rights to name supposedly timeless and iconic new stadiums and playing fields to fly-by-night corporations 10 minutes from bankruptcy and/or indictment, like Pro Player and Enron and TWA and National Car Rental and PSINet, turning the arenas for pro sports into genuinely comic symbols of America’s boiler-room stock-scam economy. But pretty soon the networks started selling naming rights to their broadcast infrastructure, letting companies buy everything from the strike-zone graphic (“The Amica Strike Zone!”) to the electronic review system in U.S. Open tennis (“The Chase Review!”) to the X-and-O analysis in NFL pregame shows (“The IBM Special Look!”). It would be one thing if we could see Mark Schlereth take a Countrywide Financial Steaming Halftime Gorilla Dump, but instead we just get this meaningless forced gibberish that makes you want to hurl your TV down an elevator shaft. I estimate we’re five years away from some enterprising executive coming up with a formula for selling naming rights to the actual play-by-play. Are you ready for “Trojan Magnum third down and seven”?
This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Men’s Journal.