Saturday, October 17, 2009

All-Time All the Time

"40-year-old Favre Leads Vikings to franchise's 400th Victory"

The above is a headline I noticed last week. Don't worry--this is not a blog post about Brett Favre. I was more intrigued by the other component of the headline.

It's not that I've never seen a sports headline reference a milestone number. You can be assured that anytime a baseball player hits a 400th career home run, the feat will be noted in the headlines. But I can't recall a time when I have ever seen attention paid to a franchise milestone, other than perhaps the occasional reference to the total number of championships won by the likes of the Packers, Yankees, Celtics, or Montreal Canadiens.

We always hear about how sports like football, baseball, and basketball are team games. And to be sure, in any given season the media probably gives more coverage to how teams are doing, rather than how individuals are performing. Yet cumulatively, there is more attention paid over the long term to individual accomplishments than team or franchise marks. Teams start over every year with a 0-0 record, but the statistics that players post follow them through their entire career. And if the players are good enough, they may be immortalized in a Hall of Fame. There is no such thing as a Hall of Fame for teams.

But of course this is not illogical. Players' careers are known to be finite. If there were a projected telos to the existence of sports leagues (as opposed to just each season), there would certainly be a lot more attention paid to the overall context of franchise accomplishments.

Yet even though we project the existence of our sports leagues into perpetuity, I can't help but wonder if the leagues (and their media partners) are missing out on a marketing opportunity. And I wonder if the fans of the leagues could derive even more enjoyment from the games if there was an extra dimension that gave them more context. Let's consider two ways that games are sold to consumers right now:

1) As part of a larger unfolding narrative. When two teams that are out of play-off contention meet late in a season, we are often told that the games are "meaningless," as opposed to the "meaningful" contests that involve one or more teams still alive for the post-season. This reminds me of the wonderful tagline that comic book writer Alan Moore once gave to a story in which Superman grew old and retired--"This is an imaginary story. But aren't they all?" Essentially all sporting events are meaningless, but we give them meaning by imagining that the context of the games dictates an importance

2) As a battle for supremecy--and not just to see who is the overall "king of the hill" (though this is of paramount importance). We split hairs in team rankings. College sports takes this to the extreme with the "Top 25" (what does it really mean to be the 12th ranked team as opposed to the 19th ranked team?). But even pro sports give divisional championships and then proceed to rank teams within each division. And of course rivalries are also sold to fans--the games between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears are supposed to be in some way "special." When Bears coach Lovie Smith was hired, he said that his number one priority was to beat the Green Bay Packers; he apparently thinks that to assert superiority over a team in geographical proximity is the most important element of his job description.

Keeping all of this in mind, I assert that more attention paid to overall franchise records and records in all-time head-to-head match-ups would add another element of interest to sports, and if nothing else, give fans and media something else to occupy themselves with.

For example, the Arizona Diamondbacks have an all-time franchise record of 970 wins and 974 losses. Their 2009 record was 70-92. By the time September rolled around this year, they were playing "meaningless" baseball games. But if more of an emphasis was placed on keeping an all-time winning percentage above .500, those September games would have been clutch. In the NFL, the Miami Dolphins entered the season with a .578 all-time winning percentage, best in the league. But the Dallas Cowboys started the year at .577. This should be an epic storyline in the 2009 NFL season.

In this year's baseball play-offs, everyone who is without a team remaining in the final four should be rooting for the Angels. With only one all-time championship, they would prevent the other three teams from getting further ahead in the race to see who can secure the most titles (or the second most titles, if catching the Yankees seems futile).

And finally, team rivalries would take on even more drama if there was more attention paid to all-time win-loss record. Earlier today, the Wisconsin Badgers and Iowa Hawkeyes met in a football game for the 85th time. Previously, they had each won 41 games, with two ties. The opportunity to seize the all-time lead in the series could have been the main storyline... But on second thought, after considering the results of that game, maybe ignoring the past and having a fresh start every year isn't such a bad idea, after all.


Anonymous Sheila said...

I'm enjoying your blog - and would like to be able to add you to one of my social sites. Are you by any chance on Facebook or Twitter?

1:11 PM  

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