'Bigger Than the Game': Sports and marketing

"Bigger Than the Game" by Michael Weinreb.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Bobby Thomson died last night. If you know your baseball history, or even if you don't, you might know that Thomson hit one of the, maybe, the most famous home runs in the history of the game. The shot heard 'round the world, Giants over the Dodgers to win the 1951 National League pennant. It made Thomson a household name. He said, in fact, that that one swing of the bat changed his life.

Bobby Thomson was a modest man, but sports stars nowadays are a bit more calculating with their reputations. A trend, says Michael Weinreb in his new book "Bigger Than the Game," that started about 25 years ago. Good to have you with us.

Michael Weinreb: Thanks for having me.

Ryssdal: Where'd you get this notion that the 80s were the turning point in the economics and the business of sports?

Weinreb: I kind of have this vivid memory of Jan. 1, 1986, watching the Orange Bowl between Penn State and Oklahoma. I was a big Penn state fan. And i just remember seeing this guy on the other team named Brian Bosworth. He had an earring, and he was barking and screaming through the whole game. And I kind of traced back that memory to look at the bigger picture of what was going on in sports back then. And just the fact that sports marketing was in its infancy, and that people like Brian Bosworth were really creating an image for themselves, because they realized that that image would sell.

Ryssdal: What about sports before Boz and the mid-1980s? I mean, it's not like athletes weren't image conscious before this.

Weinreb: Sure, guys had shoe contracts or you had O.J. Simpson doing the rental car commercials. But it really hit a new level once you got to this point in the 80s. You had the growth of two huge conglomerates in ESPN and Nike at the same time. ESPN just giving these guys more exposure, just changing the way that we were able to see them, and changing the way they kind of saw themselves. Then you have Nike, which is just able to create personalities. They did it with Jordan first, then later on they did with Bo Jackson, where they were just able to create these incredible ad campaigns, where these guys essentially became almost mythological figures.

Ryssdal: Yeah, but let me ask you this though. If you take it to the opposite chronological end of your analysis, and you bring into the present day -- if you start with the thesis that these athletes were consciously marketing themselves and trying to build themselves up, now today, you've got guys like LeBron James and the whole "ESPN, I'm going to Miami" thing, and you have Tiger Woods imploding -- doesn't sound like anybody's learned the lesson.

Weinreb: Well, that's the thing. I mean, they create such a cocoon around themselves that when we do get some sort of small glimpse of who they really are -- and if it's not a flattering glimpse of who they really are -- then the backlash is unbelievable, because that's just the repercussions for them kind of creating this image for themselves and being so careful about their brand and how they're recognizing how they're used in commercials.

Ryssdal: Did you reach out to ESPN and Nike, in particular, and ask them how they feel about what they have helped bring about?

Weinreb: Well, I'm actually a contributor to ESPN, so there's...

Ryssdal: Well, for now, anyway...

Weinreb: Yeah, exactly. That might not last after this. But I think a lot of it happened a long time ago too. I did talk to a couple of people at Nike and I talked to Jim Riswold who's the guy who created those ad campaigns. He really basically said, "I created a monster." And now when he sees the ads for LeBron James ads or any of the other ones, they just seem like pale imitations to him. For Nike now, Nike is such a huge conglomerate -- same with ESPN -- they're such a huge conglomerate that it's hard for them to sort of be that snappy underdog that they were at the beginning.

Ryssdal: Yeah. SO here's the value judgment question: Good for Sport -- with a capital "s" -- or bad?

Weinreb: Good for athletes.

Ryssdal: Which is not necessarily the same thing.

Weinreb: Not necessarily. Not necessarily good for fans, I think. As a fan, you get addicted to all this exposure and television and just the sheer number of games and the sheer number... They know all the talk, everything that's out there now. It's hard to disconnect yourself. So, we're probably as responsible as anybody else as fans for this growth as well.

Ryssdal: Michael Weinreb, his book is called "Bigger Than the Game," the 1980s as the turning point in professional sports in this country. Michael, thanks a lot.

Weinreb: Thank you.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...