I was hearing this morning that sports teams have the possibility of covering uniforms and jerseys with advertising. The National Basketball League appears to be the first to adopt this practice, thinking it’s a good idea that will generate around $100 million in new revenue. What with the relentless promotion of sports on radio and TV, it’s not surprising that corporate interests would see an audience there for their ads.
Many people have read and commented on Louis Menard’s article (The New Yorker, May 16, 2016) “Show them the money”, addressing the issue of sports and money in a review of two books: “This Is Your Brain on Sports” (Crown Archetype) by L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers; and “Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution” (Simon & Schuster) by Matthew Futterman. I found many of the statements made by Menard pertinent, although I have to say that nothing was really new to me. For example: “For everyone knows what the social role of sports is today. It is, via commercials and endorsements, to sell stuff. And everyone knows what makes that possible is television.” The Super Bowl is the outstanding example; seconds of advertising time sell for millions of dollars. With viewers numbering well over 100 million, you can see why advertisers are eager to occupy even a second or two of the telecast. Imagine how much more exposure a corporation could get with, say, a recognizable logo (e.g. the Nike swoosh) on the backs of players. The possibilities are staggering.
As an amusing but deadly accurate sidebar, I am reminded of Stan Freeberg’s 1958 radio skit “Green Christmas” in which avaricious corporate admen enthusiastically co-op the messages of Christmas in order of promote their products, even to having the Wise Men bearing gifts of brand-name spices to the Christ Child. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiHlJWvFCys Freeberg’s barbed arrows of 1950s irony would have be turned into nuclear missiles to target the marketing practices of today.
By the way, it’s also well known that television programs are only there to deliver an audience for the commercials. The mind-numbing sitcoms and game shows serve this purpose admirably. But we know that television viewing is in decline, and Menard points out that the actual audience for sports programs, aside from mega events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics (what an advertising fest that is!), are aging and dwindling. In fact, fewer than four percent of the population of the United States regularly watches sports on television. This is not a big enough audience to attract big-time advertisers, but there is a trick to make you pay for it whether you watch or not. That involves the cable companies, who bundle sports channels along with whatever it is that you might actually be willing to pay for. You may be aware of how assiduously the cable companies figured out how to hoodwink consumers after the Canadian government ruled that they had to provide a $25 choose-your-channels service. Corporations are reluctant to give any real choices to citizens and customers. It looks more and more as though they don’t have to.
Advertising has as its purpose the selling of goods that we didn’t know we needed or wanted. Need I mention that this is a lesson we are taught in school from the earliest age? After all, isn’t a whole lot easier just to do what we’re told rather than to struggle with the mental gymnastics required for making informed choices? And the duller and more ignorant the populace the easier the selling job.
Maxim Gorky pointed out, in 1928, “Sport has a single clear purpose: to make people even more stupid than they are.” Not that sports necessarily make us dumb, but the constant emphasis on sports—and on popular music—through the media preclude the delivery of information on other aspects of human endeavour. Don’t let anyone know about the accomplishments of composers, musicians, and other artists, and pretty soon the public will forget that they exist. After all, advertisers of toothpaste and deodorants aren’t about to place their logos on the backs of symphony musicians or pay artists to include product placements in their paintings. The arts are there to challenge the mind and to explore the infinite range of human emotion. Tough stuff for a public anaesthetised by mixed martial arts and the latest pop tunes.
In a 1948 essay “The Dehumanization of Art” José Ortega y Gasset says, “Cult of the body is an infallible symptom of a leaning toward youth, for only the young body is lithe and beautiful. Whereas the cult of the mind betrays the resolve to accept old age, for the mind reaches plenitude only when the body begins to decline. The triumph of sport marks the victory of the values of youth over the values of age.” As in sport, popular music is dominated by the young, and with its simple harmonies, persistent rhythms, and electronically enhanced instrumentation, it offers little of musical, poetic, or emotional interest. At the same time, many of the greatest—and most challenging—of classical music compositions were written by composers of advanced age and accumulated experience. Need I mention Verdi’s astonishing ebullient comedy “Falstaff”, written when he was 79!
But, as Menard points out, the sports industry is primed for decline. Tickets, merchandise sales, and broadcast rights do not generate sufficient money to support the industry. Hence the emerging reliance on advertising. But the prospects there are limited, based, as mentioned above, on the aging and dwindling audience. I’m sure you’re familiar with the image of the sedentary middle-aged, overweight, beer-drinking sports fan yelling, cursing, or cheering at the television. (“Hey, Honey, bring me another beer.”) Not an enticing prospect for product identification. According to 2008 North American statistics, about 60% of sports viewers are men, and of these, nearly one half are over the age of fifty. The only sport that appears to attract a younger crowd is major league soccer, and we know from European events what that leads to.
Talk of aging and dwindling audiences naturally starts me thinking about what’s happening in the world of classical music. According to statistics from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts the portion of concertgoers under 30 fell, from 1982 to 2002, from 27 percent to 8 percent. In 1937, in Los Angeles—and we can assume elsewhere—the median age of attendees at symphony concerts was 28! In 1982, the median age of concertgoers was 40 and by 2008 it was 49. Those of us working in the field of classical music are told all the time that audiences are dying off and not being replaced. If it’s true that the same is happening to sports audiences, it is in spite of massive advertising and media promotion. This makes classical music concert attendance look pretty good, because classical music is virtually ignored by the media—also by schools, where sports are promoted and funded, while music and art programs are always the first to be axed by budget cuts.
Incidentally, an accomplished classical musician stands a better chance of making a living—well, at least part of a living—than a person in sports. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics there were 11,710 people in professional sports earning an average wage of $80,490 per year. In music (musicians and singers) there are 37,090 people earning a median annual wage of $71,500. This certainly includes people in popular and folk music, but there are over 1,000 symphony orchestras in the U.S. (more than 30 in Canada) including the major orchestras (New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles) that pay wages over $100,000 per year to their core players (usually 70 to 90). The few very high-paid athletes and high-paid musicians put an upward spin on the averages. Many of those 1,000 orchestras are either non-professional or low budget. It’s important to note, however, that a musician can have a professional life lasting 40 or 50 years, whereas an athlete’s working life is necessarily limited to a few years by physical constraints. Fund an athlete and you’ll get a couple of medals and several years of product endorsements; fund an artist and you’ll get a lifetime of achievement.
But the marketers know where the money is, so they will support the activities that appeal to the lowest common denominator in society, and those will probably not be found at the symphony concert, in the opera house, or at the art gallery. Perhaps the arts will simply die off along with intelligent discourse, thoughtful reflection, and social criticism. It will be a sorry loss and humanity will be much poorer for it. What will happen to sports is anybody’s guess, but with vigorous promotion from the marketers, schools, and media, as well as a public that idolizes youth, failure is not on the horizon.
Some time ago I posted a much longer piece about these same issues. It can be found here, if you’re interested:
Here’s a link to Louis Menard’s article in The New Yorker:
And further to Gorky’s statement about sports, here’s a fascinating article by sports writer Frank Fitzpatrick