Sports and Corporate Capitalism

moneyball A reader asks what the TCT take on sports might be.

I tend to like what Chomsky says on this subject, on which he also says he gets the most hate mail.  Basically, he argues that sports provide men with a way to exercise their minds and their senses of passion and commitment, but all in a completely irrational, diversionary form.  This function is both attractive and crucial in a society where the chances for most of us to do those two things in productive, meaningful ways are small and dwindling, and also anathema to the overclass.

Of course, we also know spectator sports is a huge marketing vehicle, a way of attracting eyeballs and eardrums to involuntary shopping and brand consciousness/mind-conditioning activities.

Advertising Age, for example, has recently been fretting about the serious blow to corporate marketing that will result if there is a lockout that cancels or postpones the National Football League schedule next season.  In such insider discussions, one often sees the truth all too clearly.  Here, for example, are the words of one Dave Morgan, “CEO and founder of New York-based Simulmedia, a TV ad targeting company…[that] uses data-driven technology to help improve the relevance and results of TV advertising”:

Losing the NFL will put a number of TV networks and advertisers on the hot seat.

NFL games drive tens of millions of weekly viewers to game broadcasts and related coverage on CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN and their local affiliates. Dozens of consumer marketers, with names like Budweiser, AT&T, Ford, Geico, McDonald’s and Southwest Airlines, build billions of dollars in national media plans around NFL games and their massive reach. To make matters worse, the networks themselves depend on NFL games to promote their weekday prime-time programming, upcoming specials and season premieres. In fact, program promotion is big factor in the networks’ willingness to pay premiums in their NFL broadcast deals. No NFL means a tough fall and winter for teams, fans, marketers and broadcasters.

Won’t be easy. Finding cost-effective replacements for those millions of viewers NFL games provide and the $3 billion-plus in attendant ad spending will not be easy. No matter how hard the TV networks work to create replacement programming, whether it is movies, secondary sports, minor league football or Sunday afternoon reality shows, it won’t be the NFL and it won’t deliver the enormous crossover audiences that the NFL has. If fragmentation of TV audiences was bad before, it will get a lot worse with no NFL. [Source: Advertising Age, March 15, 2011]

Such talk — “driving” people like so many steer to the slaughterhouse — is absolutely the standard language and attitude of big business marketing, which, as documented in the TCT book, is neither more nor less than application of scientific management principles to people’s off-the-job behaviors.

Preserving the reign of television-watching, which has the very great marketing advantage of being a mildly addictive habit, is always of great concern to marketers, as you can see from Mr. Morgan’s analysis.  And, of course, spectator sports are a perfect fit for commercial TV, as they draw attention and passion, but not in too intense or too political a way.  On this, I would suggest that the Manufacturing Consent model is useful for predicting not just which stories and perspectives make the news, but also what types of entertainment programming will and will not make it onto the air.

Finally, what about playing sports?  I have mixed feelings here.  Obviously, people will always play games and sports for fun, and I’m all for freedom and public facilitation of this demotic option.  But, as a parent, I would suggest that, even in this somewhat better sphere, our culture is still quite crazy.  People now stick kids into carefully organized and intensely competitive soccer and basketball leagues at the tenderest ages, and, if the truth be told, much of the way we run our high schools (i.e. very early starts to school for a population at the height of its need for sleep, all to make after-school sports practices more convenient) is also dictated by sports considerations.

Finally, I suppose I think the mania for sports is also a logical by-product of corporate capitalism’s comprehensive, progressive destruction of meaningful physical work.  At home, we watch “American Idol” (this show ranks #1 among all programs in what marketers call “viewer engagement”) or “The Office,” and throw frozen pizzas into the oven.  As we do, things like gardening and cooking and carpentry skills fade into history.  In the realm of the economy, downsizing, automation, commodification, commercialism, and globalization are all making industrial labor not only more deskilled than ever, but almost as small a part of the overall opportunity structure as farming.  The Fortune 500 sells the lion’s share of products, but employs a small and always shrinking share of the world’s workforce.

In a world that desperately needs to find ways to move away from capitalists’ heedless, sociocidal priorities, the prevailing life of button-pushing and screen-staring leaves people desperate for ways of at least seeing somebody else perform highly skilled tasks with passionately learned and maintained physical movements.  I think sports allow us to imagine that we somehow value such things, even as we all turn to discombobulated mush, a.k.a. ideal “consumers.”

If we are lucky and smart, we might get the chance to build a new world that genuinely unlocks and rebalances life.  If that happens, we’ll get a lot saner about sports.

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