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Michael Brenner Headshot

Packaging Sport

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Sport can be spectacular. Sport also can be dramatic, inspiring or dispiriting. Every sports fan over the decades has known that in his soul. These days, though, sports are being promoted as a series of "happenings" -- celebrations. Athletes and the games they compete in are being primed, packaged and scripted like every other public event in the era of contrived melodrama. The more momentous the occasion, the bigger the stage, the more hype there is. Olympics, World Cup, as well as the stellar national championships have lost their singular sporting character as they become indistinguishable in style and presentation from the Academy Awards, American Idol, Dancing With The Stars -- or a Presidential Inauguration. Didn't Beyonce make ballyhooed appearances in rapid sequence at the Super Bowl halftime extravaganza and Obama's second Inaugural festivities? Most Americans have clearer memories of her than of anything Obama said.

This phenomenon whereby a great sporting event is reduced to a New Year's celebration for juveniles reached its nadir at this year's Belmont Stakes -- the concluding race in the fabled Triple Crown. It had all the ingredients of a made for television extravaganza: a charismatic hero, California Chrome, who had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the contrived drama of whether the chestnut would be the first horse in 38 years to win all three races, and a colorful cast of non-equine characters. Foremost among them was CC's pair of owners -- especially one Steve Coburn. He came attired in central casting uniform of cowboy hat, grey handlebar mustache, twinkly eyes and a blondish obedient wife of the old school. Having risen from a supposedly low birth and mediocre career to history-making owner of a world class thoroughbred in the course of two years, he fit the script perfectly. So, for a solid two hours, ABC set the stage for the festive happening in NYC that would be culminated by CC's historic triumph. The whole country seemed to have caught the holiday spirit -- as witnessed by the record turnout at Belmont and over-the-top press coverage.

The race itself was treated as a sideshow. In two minutes it would be over, CC garlanded, Coburn et al hoisted on proverbial shoulders followed by partying into the night. CC lost - came in a poor fourth. The cuddly, warm hearted Coburn blasted the winner's owners as cowards for avoiding the first two races and refused to admit defeat. A party pooper of a party that never achieved lift-off. Still, advertisers got their money's worth in terms of the electronic audience. And ABC had ample time to shill for its next sporting happening. So it goes.

The London Olympics coverage was the historical milestone exposing how completely theatrical artifice has overtaken real human endeavor. Every element in ABC's presentation was calculated in advance to serve the programing. It was the programming not the events or athletic competition that were showcased. A story line was in place for each piece of the action: Michael Phelps' quest for umpteen gold medals in swimming, the life saga of each young women who composed the American gymnastics squad, the showdown between the US and Jamaican sprinters led by Ussain Bolt, and -- of course -- the Olympic finale of the legendary beach volleyball duo of Misty May & Kerri Walsh. Those were slated to be the central chapters of this Olympic theater - no matter what. So it was predetermined that the viewing public would get a force-feeding of the TV executives precooked menu.

To make sure that everything would unfold according to plan, the coverage in the U.S. was almost entirely on tape delay. Nothing unforeseen and/or disagreeable could accidentally slip in since the martinets in the studio had given themselves seven hours to do the necessary editing. That also allowed them to control the sequence in which the courses were laid before the viewers. Always the tantalizing piece de resistance was reserved for last so that the viewer was obliged to ingest the less savory items (not to speak of endless tedious commercials) in order to see what most interested him.

That historic 4 x 100 sprint competition did not get shown until 10 hours after it had been run. By then, of course, everyone knew the result - deflating the event's drama for those who still could differentiate between the real and the virtual. It came on so late that a rumor was flying around the social media that it was being held back for the Super Bowl halftime show. True sports enthusiasts had no alternative other than to search their cable or satellite for a Mexican or Canadian station. I personally received a video via email recorded off a New Zealand broadcast. Admittedly, that did mean missing the penultimate series of ads on ABC and the parting words of Al Costas wishing me a good night's sleep.

Some great athletes were shortchanged completely. The Track and Field competitions used to be the heart of the Olympics before we were instructed that movement in water was far more exhilarating that movement on land - other than that on sandy beaches. Its climax was the two-day Decathlon. The winner was pronounced the world's greatest athlete: remember Jim Thorpe, Bob Mathias, Rafer Johnson, and the ill-starred Bruce Jenner. The powers on high now have decreed that it be downgraded. Just a few minutes of fragmented action are shown, there is no gripping story line as the events unfold, and the winner is given short shrift - hardly worthy of an interview. Ashton Eaton not only won the Gold but is the all-time record holder in the event? Who? Velodrome bicycle racers got more air time. His cameo appearances were in contrast to the innumerable hours focused on the pool, the gymnasts, and the girls twirling colorful ribbons. Not to speak of the women playing in the sand.

The coverage's pandering to fickle tastes and its cultivation of false celebrity is best represented by the beach volleyball craze. A cult Southern California beach game first popularized by Wilt Chamberlain, it somehow snuck into the Olympics beginning in 1992 .Its appeal lies with the trim bikini-clad figures of the ladies -- as personified by the curvaceous Misty May (admittedly a fine athlete). No one is permitted to offer even a suggestive word, though, about the sex appeal. Instead, we are treated to disquisitions about the fine points of diving into the sand to dig out a spike. In London, NBC almost came a cropper because the prime matches were scheduled late in the evening when temperatures had cooled into the 50s. Out came the long pants and tops; down went the ratings. Doubtless, desperate calls to the British Meteorological Service were interspersed with brainstorming sessions as how best to install electric heaters around the sandbox without risking the players' lives and limbs. One TV accomplishment is undeniable: beach volley ball has given new meaning to the connection between silicon and sex appeal.
This prepackaged and freeze dried approach to sports coverage carries another admonition: no controversy. That is to say, no controversy involving the conduct of athletes or the selection of participants. Only topics that fit the narrow definition of what will titillate a prime time audience are permitted.

A feature of this feel-good entertainment strategy is the stress put on the personal lives of star athletes. This used be placed under the heading of "human interest." It was helpful to get some idea of who these great athletes were as human beings. This was especially true of foreign athletes of whom little was known - as in the Soviet days. Now the attention devoted to these bios has ballooned to the point where some events seem reduced to vehicles for introducing a reality show. Not only do we get the mini-documentary of "Y" at home, we also get endless interviews - live or on tape - with just about everyone who knows them. Phelps seemed to have a segment of each broadcast devoted to his background, doings and future activities. Since these are young people who have done little in their short lives except prepare for their Olympic specialty, the material is quite thin. By week's end we knew more about Phelps than we wanted to know; indeed, more than there is to know. The Kardashian phenomenon.

The exiling of any real critical commentary creates space for trivia. Hence, there was much waxing indignant about the canine cleansing of Sochi in advance of the Olympics. It stood second only to denunciations of Russia's harsh policies toward gays. The latter surely was a legitimate issue to raise when there seemed prospect that official attitudes could affect the presence of gay athletes and visitors. It soon was evident, though, that the hard headed Mr. Putin would do nothing so stupid. Yet, the gay issue was a staple of commentary. Its prime time coverage was greater by several magnitudes than coverage of the decathlon or 4 X 100 sprint relay. The same discrepancy was true for the dog issue.

Parenthetically, it is worth noting that the 2008 coverage of the Beijing Olympics assiduously stayed clear of any social or political issues that might rub the Chinese hosts the wrong way: e.g. the abusive treatment of Tibetans or the imprisonment of dissenters. The China background music was all upbeat harmonies about the prosperous new China. Criticism should be directed not an NBC's political judgment but its judgment in selectively choosing these non-sporting motifs. Let's have it one way or the other - preferably the other.

The World Cup poses the most daunting challenge to the new ethos of sports. A soccer match flows continuously. There are no breaks for commercials or network promos. Audiences are not accustomed to announcers interjecting verbal advertisements for next week's prime time summer rerun. What to do?

That's a good question for second year MBA students majoring in marketing. The answers should be pretty obvious for anyone who will be making his first $10 million by the age of 30. First, since the audience is relatively small for this foreign game, and since the matches have to be shown live in the middle of the day, bids for the broadcasting rights should be kept low. Advertising rates follow. Two, create as much verisimilitude as possible by using foreign play-by-play announcers - preferably English who have distinctive and authentic accents yet are intelligible. Same for commentators. This also keeps the attention of the foreigners and resident aliens who constitute a large fraction of the audience. Third, keep the half-time commentary to the minimum (15 seconds per commentator is the norm) so that the 15 minutes can be fully exploited for customer consciousness raising. Finally, hope that the United States team makes it far enough into the tournament to draw a significant number of the patriotic "USA!USA!USA!" crowd. And, indeed, there was an astonishing tide of interest. Could the absence of commercial breaks have something to do with it?

Sport as happening is here to stay; it is a unilinear phenomenon. The gravest danger to what remains of the true sports ethos is that the theatrical spirit of playing out a scripted drama becomes so pervasive as to affect the outlook and decisions of officials whose neutrality is crucial to maintenance of the game's integrity. World Cup 2016 was not only in Brazil but about Brazil. That theme colored all. The home team in their inaugural match against Croatia was lackluster and seemed fated to a dispiriting draw. This despite the referee's repeated indulgence of the Brazilians' uncharacteristic "flopping." A dramatic change came when a Croatian defender was penalized for a phantom foul "in the box" that in effect handed the victory to the favorites. There is no reason to believe that the Japanese referee was in any way biased. But when caught up in an extravagant happening that is suffused with canned emotion, is anyone always wholly immune to its corrupting influence?