Sports Page

Inning 1: The Pro Sports Product

You've heard it a thousand times, maybe you've even said it yourself: "Sports has become a business."

Well, as a wise person once said: "Snap out of it!"

Of course, pro sports is a business. Leagues and teams are selling a product that blends athletics, business, and entertainment.


A. The "Big Four"

There's plenty of fan crossover between sports, but each of the "Big Four" —baseball, basketball, football, hockey—has its own unique appeal.


Baseball

Out at home!

Out at home!, Fenway Park 1940.
Photo by Leslie Jones, courtesy of The Boston Public Library, Print Department.

Baseball is not for fans who have a short attention span nor is it a game for frontrunners. The season is long—162 games, plus post season play—and even the greatest players fail more often than they succeed. Maybe that's why true baseball fans seem to have a sense of perspective that sets them apart from other sports fans. "The sanguine baseball fan," writes Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell, "knows, of course, that his game, more than most, is not about the final score. It's about the stories along the way."

There are no cheerleaders or marching bands at baseball games; no time clock either. In theory, a game could last forever.

"I can sit in a ballpark after a game and love looking at the field. Everybody's gone and the ballpark is empty, and I'll sit there. I sit there and think, ‘Is this as close to heaven as I'm going to get?' Or, ‘If I get to heaven, will there be baseball?'"
Kim Braatz-Voisard, 1997 player, Silver Bullets women's professional baseball team

And for some people, that's the problem. Non-fans complain that baseball's pace is out of sync with modern life. They'll tell you that football and basketball are better suited to TV or that there's not enough action—that only the middle-aged and the elderly still care about baseball. And all those things are at least partially true.

Modern economic realities have not always been kind to a leisurely paced game that requires an open-ended time commitment. Busy parents say they don't have the time to just sit and watch a game. They want to pack as much entertainment as they can into their non-working hours. They want the full entertainment package, not just a game.

And then there's the fact that baseball is a subtle game in an unsubtle age.

Playing catch

The fact that baseball is out of sync with the rhythms of modern life, may prove to be one of the game's saving graces.

"Its beauties," writes political columnist and baseball fan George Will, "are visible to the trained eye, which is the result of a long apprenticeship in appreciation." But with parents spending more hours on the job or shuttling kids from one activity to another, and with grandparents, uncles, and aunts scattered across the country, there is rarely anyone around to conduct the apprenticeship—to explain why infielders "shift a few steps when the count changes."

So is it time to write a requiem for baseball? Not just yet.

The fact that baseball is out of sync with the rhythms of modern life may prove to be one of the game's saving graces. If it can steer clear of labor squabbles and market its strengths more effectively—two very big "ifs" —baseball may yet win back the hearts (and the entertainment dollars) of fans seeking a haven in a hectic world.
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Football

Football is different. Forget about "the stories along the way." Winning is the only thing. Football is war. The games are a tribal experience, a bonding ritual, a gathering of the clans. (What else would you expect from a game that began as an expression of clan rivalries in the British Isles?)

"Some of us will do our jobs well and some will not, but we will be judged by only one thing—the result."
Vince Lombardi, late and legendary coach, Green Bay Packers

Each contest means more in football than it does in other sports because the NFL's regular season schedule is only 16 games long. (Baseball has 162 regular season games; basketball and hockey each have 82.)

One NFL game equals 6.25 percent of the season, whereas 6.25 percent of the baseball season equals ten games. A three-game losing streak in the NFL is comparable to a Major League Baseball team dropping 30 games in a row. No wonder football players, coaches, and fans take losses so hard. There's more at stake.

Munsingwear Ad

Football is a tribal experience, a bonding ritual. (Magazine ad, 1913).
Photo courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The fact that NFL teams play only once a week also makes each game a big social event. Football games are a great excuse to party. Every Sunday, from September through January, ticketholders get together for tailgate parties in stadium parking lots, while the fans at home lay in a supply of snack food and grow roots in front of their TV sets.

Football owes much of its success to the fact that it is perfectly suited to television. There is lots of action, yet the game's "set plays" give cameras and viewers something to focus on. And, of course, fans love the bone-crunching hits featured in highlight films and instant replays. But when all is said and done, maybe football is so popular because it is the ideal game for casual fans. Even people who don't know a first down from a touchdown can still have fun cheering their lungs out and feasting on barbecued ribs basted with a friend's secret sauce.
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Basketball

Dr. James Naismith
Basketball has seen a lot of changes since Dr. James Naismith invented the game in 1891.
Photo courtesy of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Library.

James Naismith never appeared in a sneaker commercial. He never heard of a slam dunk; probably never even saw a jump shot. So why is he in the Basketball Hall of Fame? Because all he ever did was invent the game.

The 30-year-old physical education instructor had no idea what he was starting when he hung two peach baskets from the balcony walls of a YMCA gym in Springfield, Massachusetts. He just wanted to relieve the boredom of his snowbound students during the winter of 1891.

Naismith's creation has seen a lot of changes since the day when two nine-player teams, dressed in long sleeve wool shirts and full-length pants, took to the floor for the world's first game of "basket ball." The game that started out in gym class has transformed itself into a colossal moneymaker that rivals the popularity of baseball and football.

Basketball

But the transformation took a while. Fans and sportswriters in 1949 greeted the National Basketball Association's first season with a yawn. Even the league's founders didn't expect much. Many of them were arena owners and sports promoters who were happy just to fill a respectable number of seats when there was no boxing match, ice show, circus, or rodeo in town.

Finding a ticket was rarely a problem. The games were low-key, low-scoring events. The players were a collection of no-name gym rats and college kids. Most of them were white, all of them shot with two hands and kept both feet on the ground.

Fast forward to 1992 . . .

Forget about stale-smelling gyms and sparse crowds. Professional basketball is now the very essence of the hip, glitzy, affluent side of urban American life. NBA games feature high-flying action, high-priced tickets, and multiple celebrity sightings.

League officials have done a masterful job of marketing their product. They have used star power, slam dunks, the Dream Team, and sneaker chic to capture the interest of fans from Alaska to Zimbabwe. In short, the NBA has given fans what they seem to want: top quality entertainment. The league is a thriving commercial enterprise with an enthusiastic worldwide following. And everyone is sure the good times will last forever.

Fast forward to 1998 . . .

More than half the 1998-99 NBA season was lost to a nasty labor dispute between owners and players. And hardly anyone seemed to care!

What went wrong?

Boston Globe columnist David Warsh summed up the problem perfectly: Twenty-nine owners and 400 players couldn't find a way to share $2 billion a season. (In case you've lost sight of just how much money that is, $2 billion split equally among 429 people equals almost $4.7 million per person, per season!)

Did NBA executives, owners, and players fall into the trap of believing their own press releases? Is professional basketball all style and no substance, all sizzle and no steak? We might have to wait a few seasons to find out.

Fast forward to 2012 . . .

After another lockout/labor dispute in 2011, fans still came back.
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Hockey

Hockey always seems to be skating on thin ice. Think back to 1980 when the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team defeated the heavily favored Soviets and brought home the gold. The entire country celebrated, and hockey appeared to be headed into an era of renewed popularity and prosperity.

But the cheering faded, and the "Miracle on Ice" became just another sweet memory. Not long afterwards, basketball began the surge that transformed it into the dominant winter sport.

Hockey still maintains a core of dedicated fans.

During the mid-1990s, hockey was again poised to make a comeback. A series of Disney movies—Mighty Ducks and its sequels—boosted the sport's popularity with young fans, and colorful hockey jerseys started to catch on with the fashion conscious. But a long, bitter NHL labor dispute dealt hockey another setback.

Then in 1998, the U.S. Women's Olympic Hockey Team won a gold medal and captured fans' hearts with its skillful performance and classy behavior. Had to be good for hockey, right? Well, yes, but a short while later the U.S. Men's Team failed to win even a bronze medal, and some of the players took out their frustrations on the Olympic Village furniture. The headlines were not flattering.

What could be worse for a sport than the one-two combo of tough breaks and bad press? Just one thing, but it's a big one: Hockey doesn't come across very well on TV.

The qualities that make the game so enjoyable to watch at rinkside—the speed, the color, the gritty courage of its players—don't translate to television. The puck is small, the action is fast, and the TV people haven't yet come up with the production techniques to capture the essence of the game.

Yet despite the setbacks and disadvantages, hockey still maintains a core of dedicated fans. To find out who they are, make a pilgrimage to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto and walk over to the interactive exhibit where visitors stand in goal and test their skill. Watch the faces of the Canadian kids as they fend off laser simulated shots, and you'll see how much the game means to them.

No less enthusiastic are their U.S. counterparts in New England and the Upper Midwest, where youth hockey hopefuls (and their parents) make their way to ice rinks for practice sessions that often begin at five in the morning. Even in the U.S. Sun Belt, the NHL is getting a boost from the growing popularity of street hockey.

What's the outlook for hockey? The answer depends on how well the sport can play to its strengths. Savvy marketing and innovative TV production will help. But the real question seems to be whether the game can make the most of new opportunities such as the heightened popularity of women's hockey and the developing synergy between ice hockey and street hockey.

After a labor dispute caused cancellation of the 2004-05 season, fans still showed up for the 2005-06 season. Then, in 2012, NHL owners staged another lockout that threatened the 2012-13 season.
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B. Utility: Why Do We Spend
So Much Time and Money on
Sports?

We spend a lot of time and money watching games. We pay premium prices for team jerseys and caps. Some of us camp out for the chance to fork over a fistful of cash for playoff tickets; or we spend an entire Sunday munching snack food and watching the NFL on TV. Why do we do it?

Economists approach the question through the concept of utility: We choose to spend our money on a product or service because we get a certain amount of use, pleasure, or satisfaction from consuming it.

Utility can be very practical. For example, we might decide to buy a generic baseball cap to corral our wild hair or keep the sun out of our eyes.

But then there are purchases that deliver a greater sense of psychic satisfaction. Sometimes we choose to pay twice as much for a different cap simply because it carries the logo of our favorite team.

The motivation for each purchase is different, but each involves personal choice, and we derive a certain amount of utility—use, pleasure, or fulfillment—from it.
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C. At the Margin

Think you know all about margins? Don't be so sure.

The old margins on your fourth-grade book reports were straight lines that never moved. But in the language of economics a "margin" is an outer limit that can expand and contract. It's more like a waistline than a straight line.

Economists often focus on what happens "at the margin" —at the outer limit. Marginal utility refers to the amount of satisfaction or benefit we gain from consuming one additional unit of something—eating one more hot dog, watching one more ballgame, or adding one more outfielder to the team's payroll.

The second hot dog you eat during a ballgame will probably be less satisfying than the first.

Diminishing marginal utility gets at the notion that we are likely to derive less satisfaction from each additional unit we consume during a given period of time. For example, the second hot dog you eat during a ballgame will probably be less satisfying than the first, so you'll be less inclined to spend your money for that second one. And unless you are a hard core fan, the third football game you watch on a Sunday afternoon will probably deliver less satisfaction than the second.
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D. Business, Entertainment, or Sport: What Is the Pro Sports Product?

Sports are exciting to watch and fun to talk about. They also give us the opportunity to come together in a public place and celebrate the things we still have in common. Maybe that's why we spend so much time, money, and energy watching games.

But would anyone pay $40 or $50 for a ticket to watch employees at a box factory do their jobs? Better yet, would anyone spend an entire Sunday watching televised box assembly? (Don't give this too much thought. These are NOT trick questions.)

Cardboard boxes are useful products, but they're not very exciting. One field trip to a box factory is enough to last most people a lifetime. But a box factory and a pro sports team have one very important thing in common: Both are in business to make money. Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL, and the NHL are selling a product that blends athletics, business, and entertainment.


The Night Out People

"Owners of teams are business leaders rather than sports leaders. They market a product. The fact that the consumers are fans means that their sales pitch must stress the excellence of a sports product. But the skills are essentially commercial, nonetheless."
Garry Wills, Certain Trumpets

Bob Ryan was scandalized. Any true basketball fan would have been.

Except that Ryan is no ordinary fan. The veteran columnist for the Boston Globe is one of the most knowledgeable basketball observers in the country, and he could not believe what was happening. The Boston Celtics and the Orlando Magic were tied at the end of four quarters and were headed for overtime, but hundreds, maybe thousands, of Fleet Center patrons were headed for the exits.

What kind of fans would walk out of an overtime game? Ryan calls them the NBA's Night Out People—people "who must be fed an unending diet of noise and gimmickry to supplement the actual game."

Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell

No one ever left the game early when Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were on the court (Boston Garden 1962).
Photo by Ollie Noonan, Jr., courtesy of The Boston Public Library, Print Department.

NBA executives readily acknowledge the existence of Bob Ryan's Night Out People. In fact the league gears its marketing towards casual fans—fans that aren't necessarily looking for a pure sports experience. Paula Hanson, the NBA's senior vice president of team operations, told Ryan, "Our overall philosophy is that we want to provide a night of entertainment for a family." Entertainment, in this case, means large-screen videos, blaring music, laser light shows, high-decibel public address announcers, and dancing girls.

But Ryan worries that the emphasis on entertainment might not be in professional basketball's long-term best interest. Sooner or later, he says, fans will realize they can enjoy a night out for a lot less than the price of an NBA game. "Common sense should tell you that if the Night Out People become the majority and the athletically educated fans become the minority, the entire enterprise will collapse."
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E. Bill Veeck: Listening to the Fans

Old-time team owners were traditionalists who rarely mixed sports and entertainment. Fans had the game. What more could anyone want?

Bill Veeck wanted fans to have fun at the ballpark, and he never stopped looking for ways to entertain them.

But there was one owner who saw things differently.

Bill Veeck was a showman and a visionary—a creative, exuberant team owner whose goals were to make money, have fun, and share his love of baseball with the fans; not necessarily in that order.

At one time or another during the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, Veeck owned the St. Louis Browns, the Cleveland Indians, and the Chicago White Sox. And he was no stranger to baseball tradition. (His father had been part owner of the Chicago Cubs and had helped to plant the ivy that still covers the outfield walls of Wrigley Field.) But tradition never made him its prisoner.

Bill Veek

Bill Veeck.
Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, New York.

Bill Veeck wanted fans to have fun at the ballpark, and he never stopped looking for ways to entertain them. His innovations included: belly dancers, circus acts, marauding Martians, Shakespeare Night, Music Night (free kazoos at the gate for anyone who didn't bring an instrument), an exploding scoreboard (years before anyone else had one), and players' names on the backs of their jerseys.

Sure, there were times when he might have gone a bit too far; like the time in 1951 when he sent midget Eddie Gaedel up to bat. (Gaedel walked on four straight pitches.) But there were also times when Veeck stood head and shoulders above most other team owners—like the time in 1947 when he signed Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League.

What motivated Bill Veeck? Exuberance? Profit? A desire to shake things up?

Maybe it was a combination of all three. But most of all, Veeck knew he was competing for entertainment dollars, not just for sports dollars. He understood that people did not have to spend their money at the ballpark—that they could spend it just as easily on a movie, a Broadway show, a musical performance, a night of dancing, a good meal, or a dozen other choices.

"I try not to break the rules but merely to test their elasticity."
Bill Veeck, baseball team owner

At a time when most team owners thought fans should be content just to watch "the national pastime," Veeck knew otherwise. He always listened to the paying customers, not by assembling a focus group, but by sitting next to them in the stands and taking the time to talk with them.

Veeck's zany promotions gave fans the one thing they wanted in exchange for their entertainment dollars: entertainment. But it was entertainment provided by someone who knew baseball and loved the game.

His philosophy did not win him many friends among other baseball team owners during the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. To them he was maverick who was making a mockery of their sport.

But eventually the times caught up with Bill Veeck. Nowadays, even the most traditional owners are willing to acknowledge what he had said all along: Listen to your paying customers, and make sure they go home happy.
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