As a marketing professional, I take special note of businesses (particularly in sports/entertainment) that thrive in spite of the fact that I can’t for the life of me understand their appeal.
Case in point: The World Wrestling Federation, most-recently branded as the WWE, which has been a going concern in the United States since 1952. While promoted as a sport, it is not. It’s completely scripted, from start to finish. It’s essentially a highly-promoted collection of pay-per-view and live event matches between large athletic men who pretend to wrestle while dressed in elaborate costumes and using pseudonyms. This is an entertainment franchise where marketing people sit in a room and determine which combination of fake wrestling matches and faux-blockbuster PPV events will most effectively lighten the wallets and debit cards of America’s not-quite-Men, aged 18-34. It’s like Las Vegas in tights.
These are the sorts of things I worry about if and when we make contact with other sentient beings in the universe:
Other Sentient Beings: “OK, so, we get that you all like to sit around and watch others of your species participate in athletic competitions rather than participating yourselves. But you also make time to watch others of your species pretend to participate in athletic competitions? Hmmm.”
Realizing that WWF has long-since jumped the shark, I’ve come to terms with having missed the opportunity to post a timelier blog entry solely devoted to pretend professional wrestling. However, this allows me to turn my attention to a new film about another pretend-competitive sport entitled Moneyball, based on the excellent book by Michael Lewis. This follows the exploits of the Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, who through a mind-bending combination of non-traditional thinking and statistics manages to make a small market Major League Baseball franchise competitive. By the way, the actual title of Lewis’ book was Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.
Hey, wait a minute.
The American Pastime, the National Sport (if you don’t include football or NASCAR) of the most powerful and democratic country on Earth is “unfair,” How can this be?
Picture this: A bunch of kids on a playground picking teams to play a sport. Let’s call that sport “professional baseball.” Typically, the protocol for selecting equal and fair teams (the implicit objective of this exercise) would be to pick captains for each team — who would then take turns selecting players until all eligible and willing individuals were selected. Provided that the captains had an equal knowledge of who to draft based on their ability to play, the rationale for this process is that, ideally, it will evenly distribute the talent across the teams and provide everyone with an equal opportunity to win. Simple enough.
However, what if one or more of the team captains got to pick whoever they wanted and pretty much as many players as they wanted every time it was their turn? Let’s not get all caught up in the reason for this — it could be that their parents have a lot of money, or they just signed a new cable TV deal including the entire New York City DMA, or maybe they haven’t quite gotten over Bill Buckner butchering that grounder in the ’86 Series. All that matters is that they get to pick the best players, and the other captains get what’s left. Which ain’t typically much.
Not to put too fine a point on it, you can’t just buy a World Series Championship — in fact, statistics show that spending in the top 2 only bats a cool .400. Here are the last 10 World Champions and their salary rank among 32 teams:
*Fear not, Tribe Fans, with a lot of luck and $127 million we can follow the lead of the plucky 2004 Boston Red Sox and beat our World Series curse.
And, for the record, OK, so maybe there’s no correlation between total team salary and the best players? Not so much …
*This list includes 2 MLB Most Valuable Players (ARod won it twice) and 2 Cy Young award winners (Santana won it twice).
To further connect the dots, 9 of the 10 best, most highly-compensated players belong to 2011 Top Ten salaried teams — and almost all of them are still in contention for the playoffs as of today’s date.
So, back to Moneyball: The premise of Michael Lewis’ book was that Billy Beane had to fundamentally change the way that baseball talent was evaluated and compensated in order to compete with other teams who had in some cases 3 or 4 times as much money to spend on players. He in effect had to draft what he called an “island of misfit toys,” essentially a team of young, unproven or unaccomplished players who slipped under the radar of the big market teams so that he could field a team that had a chance of winning.
Here’s my question: how frigging crazy is that?
Rather than fix the game to address this major flaw in basic competition and marketing (i.e., if every team has an equal chance to win, a sport is more attractive as a business enterprise, right?), teams have to create extensive databases of esoteric statistics in order to outsmart 31 other organizations, for years at a time, in order to be competitive. Rather than a business construction where any of the 32 teams has a realistic shot at making the playoffs, which would engage exponentially more fans for more of the season, MLB is satisfied to start every season in April with the fans in Kansas City, and Pittsburgh, and yes, Oakland, knowing that realistically they’ll be more interested in the NFL’s Hall of Fame preseason game than Major League Baseball by August.
That’s not just bad for the sport, it’s bad marketing.
Speaking of the NFL: former Commissioner Pete Rozelle of the NFL figured this out during the 1970s, and professional football has enjoyed a semblance of parity and unequaled popularity ever since. He implemented TV revenue sharing long before it became fashionable. In short, he recognized that the National Football League was not comprised of multiple individual companies competing against one another for fan allegiance, media dollars and merchandising revenue — it was one large corporation with many branch offices all working together to put the best, most competitive sports entertainment product it could on the field for 20+ weeks of the year. And when Paul Tagliabue oversaw the implementation of team salary caps in the 1980s, the league was set for unprecedented growth in both fan base and revenue. Oh, and as an aside to the greedy bastard that lives inside every Major League Baseball owner — the NFL just barely avoided a season-ending lockout that was caused largely because they all couldn’t agree on how much of the $9 BILLION in profit they make annually they all should get. That’s right, this is the sort of problem that you could be dealing with, Major League Baseball owners.
I intend to see Brad Pitt in Moneyball at some point in the next few weeks, and based on the reviews expect that I’ll like it a lot because it will be well scripted (Aaron Sorkin!), nicely acted (Brad Pitt! Philip Seymour Hoffman! That Chubby Dude Judd Apatow Loves!) and a really good story (the aforementioned Michael Lewis!). And I like baseball. Almost forgot that part.
But in the back of my mind it’s going to keep bothering me that the root of the issue with which it deals is tangential to a much larger problem — the basic inequity and poor business management of Major League Baseball as a corporate entity. And until MLB fixes this problem, I’ll continue to regard it as a second-tier professional sport without any true sense of competition on a level playing field — a sport where the winners are predetermined by the marketing people before they ever step on the diamond. All that’s missing are the tights.