Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Life Clubhouse Store

I had an enjoyable trip to Miller Park this weekend to watch the Milwaukee Brewers beat the Florida Marlins (the only game of the series that they won, alas). It was my first trip to the ballpark in over a year. Back in my college days, I frequently attended games, a couple dozen a year, back at the old County Stadium. It's interesting to see how crowds have changed over the years. Yes, the crowds are about three times as large as back then, but now there are more legitimate fans. As I was walking into the stadium, it was rather striking to see how many people were wearing Brewer apparel of some sort, with an abundance of replica player jerseys. I've been to Packer games at Lambeau Field, and every other person wears a jersey (I'm sure Favre jerseys will continue to be worn for decades to come), but back in the old days you would be lucky to spot more than two Brewer fans wearing a Jeromy Burnitz or Bob Wickman jersey. Now, the concourses are flooded with Prince Fielders, J.J. Hardys, and Rickie Weekses--and I even saw a Derek Turnbow and a Chris Capuano.

Noticing all the last names plastered on jerseys got me to thinking about the role of player names on jerseys in baseball, or more accurately, the non-role. I've come to the conclusion that the only real purpose that names on baseball jerseys serve is to sell jerseys. As opposed to football games or even basketball games where TV close-ups of jerseys help to identity players, the action in baseball is slow-paced enough that graphics inform us of the identity of the players we are viewing. In person, the scoreboard always tells us who is pitching, who is at bat, and even who is playing every defensive position.

Yet given the superfluity of player jerseys, there is something intriguing about seeing on every player's back a marker that specifies that said player is a unique subject in the sport, that he carries a fixed identity separate from the other players on the team. It is actually something that is oxymoronic to the concept of a "uniform"--something that along with an equally unique numeral, is not actually uniform.

But the concept that an athlete should have a name and numeral strikes me arbitrary. Why shouldn't every worker in every company, especially the ones that are assigned "uniforms," but even the ones that aren't, be given such a status? If every company issues every employee a "jersey" with a number and last name prominently displayed on the back, would that be something that employees would embrace, or something they would rebel against?

My suspicion is that the vast majority of workers would find such a proposal absurd, and they would probably even be angry should it be imposed. This leads me to two rhetorical questions:
1. What does this say about the concept of worker identity in America? and more importantly 2. Why do so many people get replica jerseys?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Ipods on Shuffle

Once upon a time, musicians and record producers agonized over running order for albums. You obviously wanted to put a strong track at the beginning and at the end of an album, but in the vinyl-era, it was also essential to consider how to end side 1 and what would begin side 2. It was also completely reasonable to leave off a good song entirely if it didn't adhere to the same stylistic considerations as other songs on an album. When Mick Jagger released a greatest hits album last fall, he included some unreleased tracks, including one that he had left off an album because:

"I didn't want another dance track," he says. Listeners don't think of albums as cohesive collections these days, "so now I wouldn't be reticent about that" (USA Today).
Indeed, the death of the album has been much documented, with the ipod blamed for establishing (or re-establishing) the primacy of the single over the album, and rendering run order moot. However, given my essay of a few weeks back regarding what I call the "Archival Era," I'm inclined to think that the ipod is more a creation of this era that a shaper of it. Even though radio programmers still for the most part carefully manipulate playlists so as to prevent what the industry refers to as "train wrecks" (such as Madonna and Nickelback playing consecutively), there has emerged in recent years the "Jack format," in which you could conceivably hear AC/DC played back to back with the Eagles (and surprisingly for some radio execs, the world is still standing).

Conventional wisdom is that the Internet has allowed individuals to channel their interests into specialized subgenres. Marketers are in turn encouraged to target niches. Although technology has certainly made it easier for people to pursue exotic flavors, I think the vast mainstream is just as eclectic as it was when 1950s and 60s Top 40 radio would mix together rock, folk, pop, soul, country, and R&B. The ipod is simply restoring a way of consuming music that never would have gone away had radio not abandoned it.

A supposed tenet of postmodernism is that Shakespeare and comic books are now on equal footing (as they are indeed both on my bookshelf). I would seek to complicate this conventional wisdom as well, though. It is a tenet of my "archival era" that we are still quite intent on an Aristotelian categorizing of artifacts and data; we are still obsessed with labeling. However, we are not, as in past days, doing so with the intent of determining a rigid hierarchy, in which some items are given inclusionary privileged status. We simply want to account for it all. After that, everything can flourish or not as the individual pleases.

A good example of how this plays out is in the tiered programming of cable and satellite television. Although consumers would probably benefit economically from a shift to ala carte programming, there has been no mass uprising against the cable companies, no groundswell of support for such a proposal. I suspect this is because we revel in being in the archival era-- there is something exciting about having specialized channels devoted to old movies, weather, sports, sci fi, men, women, blacks, Latinos, racing, music, pop culture, news, cooking, Catholics, Evangelicals, game shows, golf, cartoons, classic television, shopping, etc... And though certainly we all have our favorite channels, who has never wasted time on channels that have only limited interest for them? More to the point, who has never, in ten minutes of watching television, never randomly indulged in multiple channels of wildly diverse content? (I remember being particularly frustrated when watching an NFL play-off game at a friend's house, being subjected to watching a nature program during commercial breaks).

The truth is, that despite an attempt by demographers and marketers to pigeon-hole us, our interests, and our very lives for that matter, are ipods set to shuffle. And that's the way we like it.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Evils of Bracketology

Since I wrote last week's post arguing for an NCAA Reunion Tournament, I've thought of another reason such an event would serve the public interest. It would be even harder to fill out a bracket for this event than it already is for the regular tournament. Why would this be favorable? Because I think filling out brackets is indicative of a primitive human drive that is born of a pessimistic outlook on life.

ESPN's Jay Bilas successfully predicted the four teams in this year's Final Four--not only at the start of the tournament, but way back before the season even started. However, when given the chance by ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike" to gloat, he surprised me by downplaying his accomplishment. "I think that predicting games is one of the silliest things we do [in TV sports]," he told them. "Look at the Super Bowl. Nobody picked the Giants. " He intimated that it would be of greater service to viewers to tell them areas of interest to focus on and crucial match-ups to watch for, rather than haughtily making oracular pronouncements. Yet no major sporting event passes without almost every paid commentator or columnist feeling compelled, as part of their job, to prognosticate. And oddly, people demand that they do so. Back when I worked in sports radio, I was rather surprised and amused when somebody whom I rarely interacted with actively sought me out before a Packer play-off game in order to discern my opinion on who would win. I doubt the individual was satisfied by my refusal to commit to a clear answer (though I suspect he was even more dissatisfied with the outcome of a certain 4th and 26 play in that game).

Although I suppose gamblers have a tangible reason for wanting insider knowledge, why can't the casual fan simply "enjoy the ride" and revel in the heightened tension that uncertainty can provide? Although it has become a cliche, it is true that sports is the ultimate in reality television. The unscripted nature of sporting events, and the seemingly infinite possibilities of outcomes, are what makes them compelling viewing. Why do we seek to undermine the very thing that gives us the most pleasure?

Perhaps our answer can be found by studying our roots. One doesn't need an advanced degree in historical anthropology to know how obsessed ancient and even medieval cultures were with knowing the future. The concept of the oracle or augur is consistently found across diverse cultures throughout history. The practice of fortune telling, though not dead, has certainly waned in recent centuries, and one needn't think too hard to discern the cause. With the prevailing worldviews of Christianity and skeptical secularism both eschewing divination, the practice became doomed to decline. Yet just because the practice is removed doesn't mean that the impulse that gave rise to the practice in the first place is snuffed out. We still have a drive to know.

Turning a cliche on its head, I'm fascinated by the concept that bad news can be better than no news. I literally can't imagine what it must be like for a family that has a missing loved one. Yet I never quite know what to make of interviews in which family members say that the hardest part of the ordeal is "not knowing." I don't quite know what to make of the Biblical story of King Saul and the Witch of Endor, in which the Israelite king went to great lengths to get a foretelling of a battle, and then accepts a harsh prediction without incident (despite having a well documented temper). Likewise, what to make of two Babylonian rulers lavishing praise and honors on Daniel for easing their uncertainties, even though it involved predicting their tragic downfalls?

It is my hope that we reach a point and time when we are optimistic enough to view a state of uncertainty as a favorable and even exciting state to be in. But I make no predictions.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Get Ready For July Madness

"Can't repeat the past? Of course you can!"- Jay Gatsby

One can't help watch this year's Final Four and its great teams with great traditions, without thinking about the past. Actually, it seems that a big part of the CBS presentation of the NCAA men's basketball tournament every year is a constant invocation of history. I think I've seen Christian Laettner's 1992 buzzer beater every year since it happened. And thinking about great teams and great tournaments of the past, a sudden and (I think) brilliant idea occurred to me. Every year, a 20-year-anniversary tournament should be staged, bringing back all the teams and as many players as possible that played two decades back. For example, this year we would have been treated to Danny Manning trying to reprise his 1988 performance and lead his Kansas team to another championship, with competition along the way from an Oklahoma team led by Stacey King and Mookie Blaylock, and Kentucky with Rex Chapman. The tournament could be in July, when not much other than baseball is on the sports calendar. We'll call it "July Madness."

The first obstacle would be convincing the players to suit up again, but I actually think this would be one of the easiest tasks. Of course, if they stand to benefit financially from participating, I think it would be a slam dunk to convince them (pardon the ham-fisted pun), but even if you couldn't guarantee much more than traveling expenses, I still think you'd stand a chance to convince most of them. You might encounter a few prima donnas, but I think a lot of guys would relish the chance to recapture the glory of their youth. Most college players don't go onto distinguished pro careers, and even the ones that do have shown that they are willing to play for nothing to represent their country in the Olympics. Is representing one's alma mater a substantially less pull? Plus, they would have the added excitement of re-connecting with old teammates. Chris Webber, who recently retired from the NBA, once said that he remembered every college game he played in his one year, and that it was the most fun in his life that he had playing basketball. Banged up body or not, you don't think he'd love the chance to re-take the court with the Fab Five for one more run, with a chance to make up for his infamous time out gaffe?

But even if the players are on board, the tournament is a no go if there is not substantial public interest in watching it, or in buying tickets. Is the public really interested in seeing a bunch of out of shape old guys trying to get up and down the court? My guess is that they are. The PGA Senior Tour is a lucrative enterprise, in large part because old guys, though they can't compete with youngsters, can still play golf. Basketball is one sport where people in their late 30s and early 40s can still operate at a fairly high functional level, without risking catastrophic injury. You won't see as many alley-oops, but you might actually see better fundamentals and execution.

But while highly competive games would be nice, the real selling point of the tournament is the chance to re-live the past. And if anyone doubts that this is a real phenomenon in American entertainment, all they need to do is look at Pollstar's annual list of the highest grossing concert tours, which usually features the likes of the Rolling Stones, Eagles, Police, etc... It's about time that the sports industry capitalizes on what the music industry has been riding for years now.

One of the tantalizing prospects of a tournament is that it offers what is rare in sports, especially college sports: a second chance. How much would the 1985 Georgetown team or the 1983 Houston team give to prove that they were the best teams in the tournament those years? The proposed tournament would also give players a second chance, and not only in the case of guys like Webber who made on-court mistakes, but also in the case of players who underachieved at the pro level or made bad decisions off the court.

There are legal and logistical problems that would have to be ironed out. Would the tourney be sponsored by the NCAA? If not, could the organizers secure the rights to team names and logos? Where would the games be played? But I think if there is money to be made, if the players are up for it, and the fans want to see it, such a thing can happen. And I think these questions all can be answered affirmatively. The only thing better than "One Shining Moment?" How about "Two Shining Moments"?