Friday, May 8, 2009

Sports = Entertainment

From the dawn of history, professional sports was always co-existed with the "entertainment world."

Babe Ruth was either traded so that Harry Frazee could -- or could not -- finance "No, No Nanette." The Celtics usually have a long West Coast road trip in mid-February, so that travelling shows (currently "Disney on Ice") can use the Garden.

But it has only been in the past few decades that sports has morphed into entertainment. Red Auerbach, who was a link to the original NBA of the 1940s, refused to allow danceteams or other "modern" entertainment at the Garden. In 2004, he said: "They're just waiting for me to die so they can get cheerleaders."

(The Celtic Dancers are in their third year, beginning the first season after Red's passing.)

But the point of this post is not to complain about the post-modern "Fan Experience."

Rather, when Big-Time Sports began competing directly for the American consumer's entertainment dollar, a Rubicon was crossed.

Sports heroes have become treated like celebrities, been paid like celebrities, and begun living their lives like celebrities. Salaries followed.

But there's a difference between sports and pure entertainment: we don't care what entertainers have to do to stay at the top.

If Madonna needs a little help to stave off the next generation of teeny-boppers, no one cares. Sure, it's fuel for the tabloids and gossip pages, but no one cares. Her music either sells or it doesn't; in fact, we don't even care what 'post-production' needs to be done on the album to improve her voice.

And it's not just music -- body doubles abound in Hollywood: Julia Roberts got help from a body double in Pretty Woman. Halle Berry has received "double" help from Barbara Alexandre. And of course stunt men -- while being replaced by CGI in recent years -- have been around since the days of Eisenstein.

There's no pretext in show biz -- the entertainment is entertaining. If it's not, we won't watch, and don't care. And if the Big Star needs a little help -- from a surgeon, or a strength coach, or a teleprompter, or even a little pick-me-up in the morning, we don't see it, and we don't care.

But sports is -- or was -- different.

The competitive aspect of sports is what made it compelling. Could one athlete outtrain, outwork, or outlast their opponent?

We measure athletic achievements, both to separate them from one another, but also to show the separation from mere mortals.

The compelling images from our childhood are of superhuman achievement: Dr. J dunking from the foul line. Kirk Gibson limping to the plate, then fist-pumping around the bases. Michael Jordan ripping the heart out of the City of Cleveland.

What does it mean for our children's memories?

Jerry Seinfeld once famously summarized modern sports as follows: "You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to another team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt! They hate him now! Boo! Different shirt!! Boo!"

When will we reach the point that we now root for our chemists to whip up better concoctions than the other team's chemists?

And will we pay $100 a ticket to see it?


martin PU'69 said...

A bit off your point, but the para below reminded me of a life lesson I learned from being a parent. At a birthday party for one of our boys (about 7 or 8 YO then), we organized a game of "Crows and Cranes." Players assigned initially to 1 of 2 teams (Crows or Cranes.) On signal palyers advance toward each other from opposite ends of a field. Referee at some point shouts "Crows!" (or "Cranes!") and those players try to tag the other before they can retreat to the safety of their own end of the field. Tagged players now join the other team for the next round. Fierce attachment to their new team by tagged players is observed to be instantaneous.

Sure, that means "team spirit" is pretty much manufactured, but the life lesson is that this trick of emotional transference (and quickly letting go of feeling like a loser) can be awfully handy when you need to "get [yourself] on board" with a change in the workplace.

"Jerry Seinfeld once famously summarized modern sports as follows: "You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city..."

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