I don’t know about you, but for me it’s been an exhausting month as a sports fan. Last week the curtain came down on the frenetic Major League Baseball trading deadline, the culmination of weeks of furious social media speculation. Shortly before that came the opening of National Football League training camps, with the annual summer rite of universal hope filling in for fall’s unpredictable wins and losses. And just before that came the culmination of the modern day rebuke to Thomas Wolfe as LeBron James did indeed go home again to his once (and apparently current and future) beloved Cleveland and the National Basketball Association’s Cavaliers.
Man, it’s been exhausting. But what about the games themselves you say? Weren’t there any actual games during that month? OK, there was a little thing called the World Cup. But in all of the major American team sports, the games have taken a huge backseat lately. In fact, the overwhelming flood of sports news reminds me of a variation on the bandits’ taunt of Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: “Games? We don’t need no stinkin’ games!”
Yes, games do of course attract eyeballs and are ultimately a necessary “evil” for the sports business (the “evil” comes from the incredible expense of broadcasting rights to distribute the actual games, the inability to control the outcome, favorite players getting hurt, etc.). But I actually find, somewhat oddly perhaps, that it’s all the other stuff that really helps make sports-related media such a tremendous business today and going forward:
1. Passionate fans creating a social media marketers’ dream
Roger Angell, the wonderful baseball writer and recent Hall of Fame inductee, once wrote that what makes sports so alluring is “the business of caring—caring deeply and passionately.” (He wasn’t literally referring to “business” but it’s just as applicable here). It’s not rational for middle-aged people (mostly men) to paint their faces, bare their chests, and buy matching $200 jerseys for every member of their family (hello merchandisers!) – unless their favorite team is involved. When advertising is filled with buzzwords today such as “sentiment”, “affinity”, and “engagement”, sports fans fit that bill to a tee. We now have a $70 billion industry – fantasy sports – built on passionate fandom with stunningly low costs of entry and operation. “Social” media (not to mention talk radio) seems to have been designed precisely for a world where fans not only want but almost need to interact and argue endlessly about their teams’ past, present and future.
2. The flood of reality programming
Beginning with CBS CBS +1.35%’s Survivor in 2000 (which was actually based on a prior European format), the emergence of the reality programming genre has been a life saver for many a broadcast and cable network. From American Idol to Keeping up with the Kardashians to who knows how many Real Housewives shows (not to mention oddities like When Animals Attack), this programming is usually relatively low-cost compared to traditional drama series, sitcoms and motion pictures, with no actors (at least not usually professional ones) and no expensive screenwriting talent. The sports world seems to supply an endless amount of this type of programming, including pre- and post-game coverage, new “live event” programming like the NFL Draft and “combine” (yes there’s a passionate audience for watching prospective players get weighed) and behind-the-scenes programs such as Hard Knocks and 24X7 on HBO.
3. Larger than life personalities
“You can’t tell the players without a scorecard” is an old ballpark adage, but today if you can’t tell the players without a scorecard you probably aren’t interested in going to the park anyway. The NBA revolutionized sports marketing by emphasizing star (and star personalities) like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and particularly Michael Jordan, and the seemingly endless drama concerning LeBron James has moved even beyond that. I suspect more people may know Dennis Rodman from his man-crush on North Korea’s Kim Jong-un than his ferocious rebounding. That focus on the personal and private lives of star athletes runs across virtually all sports and personality types now, not only the good (the hagiographic treatment of Derek Jeter surrounding the All-Star Game), but the bad (Tiger Woods and his marital problems) and the ugly (Lance Armstrong and his painful Oprah appearance).