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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Sports advertising and marketing have gone way too far

Sports marketing has come a long way since the days of Abe Stark’s curtly-worded “Hit Sign, Win Suit” in right centerfield at Ebbets Field. Perhaps, one could say, fashion has also come a long way since the days of showing up to the ballpark wearing a Panama hat and a three-piece but that’s beyond the scope of my admittedly limited expertise.

Nowadays, everything from commercials to product placement to media inundation has turned sports advertising into a billion-dollar business. It’s hard to go anywhere in a sports venue, watch a televised sporting event, or click on a sports-related website without being besieged by advertising run amok (including this one). It used to be so easy to stop hokey promotional spots from seeping into our collective subconscious when Earl Campbell was spotted wearing way-too-short shorts and declaring “Skoal brotha!” Now, for crying out loud, if any person reading this has watched the WNBA, they’ll notice a number of teams have ditched their place-names and team names for advertising. I’m still convinced that the women’s professional team in Los Angeles is a bunch of Farmer’s Insurance agents. (Editor’s note: The number of league viewers and readers of this weekly column are about even, and that’s not a flattering assessment.)

On a recent trip to Dodger Stadium — which until this season, had the feel of arriving in the Roman Empire after the Visigoths made off with the last remaining lampshade — there were no less than 5,000 advertisements plastered over the outfield walls, scoreboard and areas surrounding the seats. The only thing not on display was a third baseman anyone had ever heard of. However, there was a between-innings ad sponsored by a produce company that grows some pretty tasty kiwanos. Unfortunately, these were not available during the seventh-inning stretch.

If only I hadn’t spent most of most college life unsuccessfully trying to peel the cellophane off my textbooks, I might have been able to actually offer something insightful in this space on the subject. However, one doesn’t need to be Adam Smith to surmise that branding has become a pretty powerful thing, especially in the world of sports. Michael Jordan became Air Jordan (and, perhaps in Germany, Herr Jordan) with his athletic prowess that led to the growth of shoe celebrities and, unfortunately, those dreadful Hanes commercials.

Jordan was by no means the first athlete to sell his soul for an underwear, car, or shoe company, and probably won’t be the last. Things have dramatically changed, though. Jordan sold Nikes, not British Knights. Now even some of the little guys are throwing big sums of money at pitchmen to hawk their goods. Blake Griffin has been frequently spotted on Kia commercials; not that the acting will make Anthony Hopkins jealous anytime soon. The automobile company probably got its biggest boost when Blake jumped over one of their cars during the All Star Game festivities in 2011. It was the second such time the Clippers’ forward had soared over a clunker, including his facial of one Timofey Mozgov.

Time was, something going viral led to quarantining. People avoided things going viral, like, uh, well, the plague. Now sports marketers try to be so cutting edge with the latest sports star, you’d almost expect to see Bryce Harper trying to sell Ginsu knives to the masses.

Even the counter-intuitive seems, well, intuitive. A number of local and national telecasts have even found a way to sell sponsorship of timeouts, a period in the action when one would think that consumers would be more likely to give back what they had previously consumed, to put it nicely. I would say this line of thinking is like selling ice to the Eskimos, but even they’ve probably moved on and have begun sponsoring Zambonis.

The arena of sports advertising encompasses more than just global sports heroes shilling chewing tobacco, expensive tennis shoes, and cheaply-made, imported automobiles. If Bo knew something, it was definitely about how to make a ton of money vending T-shirts with a nebulous two-word phrase: no, not “hip injury.” Think about how many athletes have worn a milk mustache to help market the drink only for the consuming public to find out later that said athlete was on the juice instead and not the kind part of a complete breakfast.

Not all of these campaigns hit the mark. Have you ever looked at Keith Hernandez and Walt Frazier and thought that you needed your hair darkened? I know John Kruk is on a system. I doubt that it’s the Nutri-System he would have us all believe. Rafael Palmeiro and Viagra? Not the kind of bat people were thinking of. Well, I guess there’s probably about as much nobility in athlete campaigning as there is in the political realm. I keep seeing these election advertisements telling me to support some schnorer named Brad Sherman who is running against Howard Berman. As if the American public wasn’t confused enough about politics and hanging chads already. Now, they’re picking on dyslexics.

Either way, one doesn’t have to go far to witness the extent to which sports and athletes can be marketed to the masses to make ungodly sums of money. In fact, researchers working around the clock for this website (read: Larry Brown) have determined that, aside from the folks who accidentally land here every Wednesday after a failed web search for the Korean pop star with the same name as this writer, most people who read this column are lured away by the prospect of the pictures of scantily-clad celebrity Photoshop nightmares and flashing reminders to refinancing your house.

It seems like everyone is getting in on the racket of making money off of sports. In that case, allow me to tell you about the free salad shooter you will receive for a limited time only if you start paying me for these columns. But, wait: there’s more. Stick around next week for another doozy and find out.

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

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