The Consumer Republic: Endgame

What if the global marketplace gave a party and America wasn’t invited?
That’s the way the World Cup feels here in the U.S. of A. We Americans can’t even agree with the rest of the world on what to call the sport, let alone fathom why it engages the passions of all humankind–save ourselves. For the duration of the contest, Americans, the tastemakers of global culture, retreat to their 19th-century status as citizens of a backward outpost.
In the meantime, economies all over the globe grind to a halt, whole nations writhe in the agony of defeat and billions of soccer widows are left bereft. But here at home, viewers would rather tune in to see whether Mark McGwire would hit a homer in the All-Star game of our most parochial sport than watch the U.S. disappear from the soccer, er, football tournament in the first round of global competition.
Of course, American marketers appreciate the World Cup, even if American fans don’t. With its titanic audience reach, the event is a priceless opportunity for any brand angling for a share of world mind. It is the most dramatic evidence yet that in our shattered media world, sports, above any other form of entertainment, have the power to cross all borders in a multichannel universe. They are the last refuge of the mass marketer, which is why the notion that something is amiss between sports and its fans in this country should alarm a lot of people.
This week, U.S. News & World Report devoted its cover story to the fractures in sports mass appeal. The ratings of NFL playoff games–“real” football playoff games–have plunged 22 percent in the last 10 years. Voters are now routinely refusing to spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars for the dubious pleasure of having a hometown team. Today it costs the mythical family of four about $221 to see a football game alongside the clients in the corporate sky boxes.
Is consumer rebellion brewing? Will the fans, fed up with being treated like dirt by striking players, multimillionaire felons, extortionist franchises and bottom-line-focused owners finally revolt and demand their rights?
Probably not.
The sad fact, sports fans, is that only citizens can have rights. Audiences cannot. The only principle fans can stand on is the pleasure principle, which trumps an injured sense of justice every time. The radio talk-show hosts love to fantasize about fans walking out on their teams, while every game-cancelling strike is declared the proverbial last straw. And sometimes it is–until a new set of heroic feats and hot rivalries lure back the consumer, who, as might be expected, is more interested in enjoying himself than in holding a grudge. Fans’ revenge is a populist mirage.
Boredom and exclusionary pricing are the real threats to sports’ status as the last of the mass TV spectacles, and there is evidence that pro sports are afflicted with both.
In a world where it is possible to watch sports around the clock and satellites beam dozens of simultaneous games for the customer’s choosing, the must-see quotient of any one game or sport inevitably diminishes. And as the number of events that can deliver a mass audience shrinks, the more desperate the media and its sponsors are to get a piece of whatever venues are left. Rights fees go up, along with the cost of ad time, player salaries, labor disputes and the price of seats.
Indeed, the gentrification of sports may be the most disastrous trend of all. Anyone who can pay $4,000 for season tickets for an NFL team can afford all kinds of diversions to stoke his sense of well-being. It’s the less powerful, more marginal audience who really needs sports; for them, it offers not only entertainment but redemption. Just rerun the video of Brazilians and Croatians watching their World Cup teams compete to see what I mean. No wonder 37 billion people watched these games.
What’s telling is that sports advertisers aren’t waiting for the pro leagues to respond to fan alienation. They’re trying to make sports less elitist and more accessible–whether it is or not.
The makers of athletic shoes, the premiere mythologizers of hero athletes, are dumping endorsers. The new hook in the category is, of all things, old-fashioned product attributes, the nitty-gritty stuff that delivers benefits to the consumer.
Kingmaker Nike now looks to give its communications the common touch, trying to “combine the champion athlete with the consumer’s own experience,” as a company exec recently told Adweek. And then there’s Coke, which brought its “For the Fans” Olympic strategy to World Cup advertising. Yet fans have to wonder: Is sports advertising becoming more democratic because sports is becoming less so?