Here in America we now run commercials for sports events to tell us “we live for this”. But have you grown tired of being told “bigger” is always “better”?
Now we come to Super Bowl Sunday, that annual paean to American advertising that vividly reminds us just how closely intertwined professional sports and corporate money are in our society.
What strikes me about every Super Bowl is just how enthralled we are as a culture with an event that has so much flash but so little substance. There’s the game, of course, but it’s just like every other NFL game during the season. Then you get a truncated, overproduced concert by some A-list pop star at halftime, and in between some bemusing commercials. All of it amounts to basically the same thing you can see and hear while browsing at Best Buy for a Blue-ray player.
Of course, the Super Bowl is just a microcosm of all professional sports and NCAA Division I athletics (what I’ll call Big Sports), which are all veritable La La Lands built on 30-seconds bursts of entertainment. What is so remarkable is that we are so easily taken in by it all, and most of us even come to believe life without it would be poorer. That’s why so many people who don’t even care about football will be watching the Super Bowl on Sunday; it’s a big event.
Still, I hear rumblings of discontent from those who are losing their taste for Big Sports. A friend told me recently he no longer bookends his day with SportsCenter; a relative revealed that the emotional investment it took to follow his favorite college football team drove him away from it; the liberal arts college I work for is screening the film Concussion this Sunday for students who won’t watch the NFL for ethical reasons; Sonny Fulks wrote this week that he’d prefer to attend the high school state football tournament rather than the Super Bowl because the experience is just more “natural”.
And that’s the word, isn’t it? Natural. There’s something genuine about watching your son play Little League baseball in the community park, or traveling with your neighbors on a Saturday morning to see your granddaughter’s high school volleyball team compete. Those are places where real community resides in flesh and blood, and the venues exist just to be a place to play, not to make money hand over fist. There are few worries about concussions, and no compulsive need to be seen on the non-existent Jumbo-tron.
Conversely, there’s something very unnatural about almost everything surrounding Big Sports. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it just feels like the whole thing runs against the grain of the universe. Especially when marketers and advertisers sell professional sports to the public like a snake-oil cure-all for all their chronic dyspepsia, nameless anxiety, and civic embarrassment, it all seems a little greasy.
And let me pause here and say that the revolt against the mainstream media we’ve witnessed with the rise of Donald Trump and his supporters has overlooked something important. Until now, the complaints against the media have been almost entirely of a political nature, but the major networks and news outlets are also driving a sports narrative just as skewed as anything the New York Times or Washington Post is putting on their front pages about conservative ideology.
Television networks like ESPN, CBS, NBC, and FOX are guilty of manufacturing a larger-than-life Big Sports events that serve their interests and the interests of their corporate sports partners like the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Do you think FOX wants the Super Bowl to be smaller than last year, when CBS aired it? The more hype they give the event, the more viewership they can generate, which in turn in leads to revenue. Thus Big Sports becomes bigger by necessity, like a snowball growing as it rolls downhill.
It all keeps getting more extravagant and more fraught with existential meaning every year — case in point, last fall, the Big Ten Network aired promo commercials for OHSAA football games with the tag line, “You live for this!”. Is that what they want us to believe or what they know we already believe? Which is the chicken, which the egg?
Articulating how media shapes culture, Neil Postman wrote in 1993, “What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer. And so the balance of business expenditures shifts from product research to market research, which means orienting business away from making products of value and toward making consumers feel valuable. The business of business becomes pseudo-therapy; the consumer, a patient reassured by psychodramas.”
“What’s wrong about the buyer” is that their life feels vaguely empty, so the sports marketers and businesses have turned their product into something larger than life. So we tune in weekly to their Sunday afternoon shows, not wanting sport, but something more — a psychodrama that helps us forget about life for a while. The question remains to be answered as to how long it will take for Americans to realize that the product, however flashy and exciting on its exterior, is ultimately hollow, too.