There’s No ‘Ad’ In ‘Team’

Your correspondent wishes to apologize to all good DFR readers. This Friday Feature should have been produced weeks ago; however, I found myself consumed recently by thoughts about buying a new(ish) car, and all that mental back and forth made focusing on any other project difficult, at best.

I mention this not because anyone reading this is likely to care about my car-buying adventures, but because, as you will see, it’s actually germane to the subject of this piece.

Back at the end of January, I wrote a feature which criticized the ever-growing encroachment of advertising in our sports arenas and television broadcasts–not just during commercial breaks, but within the play of the very game itself. And with the recent news that the NBA has now approved putting small ads onto the players’ uniforms (a development almost predicted in this space),with other leagues perhaps ready to follow, the impact of this trend is sure to increase in coming years.

And what is the impact of that trend? It’s hard to say definitively–that answer relies a great deal upon a subjective experience–but let’s examine the question through a simple thought experiment, one that views the matter through the relationship between the teams and their fans.

The DFR: FandomLet’s forget about sports for a moment. Let’s simply imagine that you are in the market for some oranges.

That’s right: oranges. Plain, old mandarins; Florida’s favorite fruit. You’ve got a hankering for oranges, so naturally, if you meet up with someone who is selling oranges, a mutually beneficial transaction is likely to occur. You buy the oranges, he sells the oranges, and everyone is happy. So far so good, right?

OK, then. This is a clear example of a simple relationship between buyer and seller. One side wants something specific, the other side has something specific that he’s willing to part with for just compensation, and they meet in the marketplace and make a deal. It happens all the time, everywhere in the world.

…the assaults of advertising … come at a cost: an immense amount of distraction that draws your attention away from where it wants to be, and dilutes the experience you want to have.

But suppose that you want oranges, and the guy who has oranges also wants to sell you socks. What then?

You’re not particularly interested in socks, but every time you walk into that guy’s store, he’s trying to get you to buy his socks. He shows you his socks for sale. He tells you all about the socks he has for sale. He extols the virtues of his socks. Throughout his store, you see signs telling you how great those socks are, and what a great deal the store will give you on those socks. Maybe the seller will even give you a sample pair to try on. Whether you get sample socks or not, your experience in that guy’s store is going to be all–or almost all–about socks.

Would you keep going back to that store, the one that keeps trying to sell you socks?

Probably not. And why not?

Because you don’t particularly want those socks. Perhaps you like a different brand of socks. Perhaps you think the socks that guy has for sale are ugly. It’s possible that you’ve tried those socks in the past, and you didn’t particularly like them. They got holes in them after only a few times wearing them. Or perhaps you have foot problems, and need to wear a special kind of socks. Or maybe you just don’t like the famous person who’s in the ads plastered all around the store promoting the socks. Whatever it is, you don’t want those socks.

Is this a good time to remind you that, when you walked into the store, what you really wanted was oranges?

It’s possible that you lost sight of that fact during the whole socks diatribe. And that’s one of the big problems with the world of sports becoming ever more beholden to advertising for its bread and butter.

Sports fans are like the person who wants oranges: they have something very specific they want to purchase–sports–but those who are selling that commodity are very much vested in getting those fans to buy something else as well. And that disagreement between buyer’s desire and seller’s desire represents a distortion of the market relationship between those engaged in the transaction.

There are a lot of consequences to that distorted relationship. On the supply side, one has to start wondering what the purveyors of spectator sports are really all about, when their focus shifts so heavily towards making their guests and audience buy something other than the games at hand. Athletics rose to their position of prominence in our society not just as raw entertainment, but because they also provide a focus for community identity, a sense of being “all in this together.” But one can hardly believe that about teams and their owners, and even some players, when their mission seems to be more about exploiting the fans as consumers rather than building a winner and giving their communities something to feel good about.

Meanwhile, on the consumption side, the fans have to run that gauntlet of sales pitches and jump through that circus of advertising hoops just to receive a full share of the product they want to purchase–namely, the games they wish to watch or attend. The impact of running that commercial steeplechase can run across a broad spectrum from minor  irritation to insanity-making assaults on the senses and reason.

Photo of FedExField, showing huge ads and no team signage.
Uhh…who plays here? (photo courtesy Lacey’s…Duh!)

As with my car-shopping experience, as with the oranges and socks in the thought experiment, the assaults of advertising and the concentration required to navigate through a commercial landscape that wants you to buy something you don’t want come at a cost: an immense amount of distraction that draws your attention away from where it wants to be, and dilutes the experience you want to have.

This distraction fundamentally alters the fan’s relationship with the sport in question, so much so that one may start to wonder if the experience is even worth it. Think about the romanticized relationship that fans of the past had with their favorite players, teams, and sports. Remember every commentator who ever waxed nostalgic about the teams and players of their youths. Consider the almost mythic love past fans have expressed for their favorites from that long gone era “when it was a game.” Do fans today really feel that way about their teams? Is it really possible for fans to have that same kind of relationship with their rooting interests, when they know that they are simply a commodity to those executives, teams, and players?

Or forget the emotional dimensions of the fan-sport relationship. There are also practical dimensions to the ways in which advertising distorts the fan-sport relationship. Ads are always cited as providing revenue streams for the teams in question. Presumably, this extra money should make running the team easier, particularly with regards to payroll. Higher revenues should mean more better players, better facilities, a winning club–in short, a better fan experience. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

Greater revenues have inflated payrolls across pro sports, and those inflated payrolls in turn are used to justify making the game day experience more and more expensive. Think about it and ask the question: if teams keep inventing more and more revenue streams, taking in more and more money, why do they keep needing to raise ticket prices? Concessions prices? Parking prices? Merchandise prices? All prices? Fans are subjected to those advertising assaults, yet they never reap any financial benefit themselves from the team’s new largess. As CCR once sang, about the same sorts of “fortunate sons” who run pro franchises:

And when ask them, “How much should we give?”
Oooh, they only answer, “More, more, more.”

John Fogarty could have been singing about Jed York.

At what point is it enough? You, as a fan, can stop going to and watching the games; that’s long been a prescription for combating the excesses of modern spectator sports. But it’s not much of a solution; if you boycott the games, you’re really just hurting yourself. After all, you’ll be the one not getting your oranges.

Perhaps a limited boycott is the answer: keep going to the games, keep tuning in, but don’t by the merchandise, don’t buy the concession stand food, don’t patronize the advertisers. Try to delineate, with your wallet, what you want to be a part of, and what you have no use for. It may not make much of a difference, but at least you’ll still get your oranges, so to speak, without having to buy those damn socks.


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