"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, June 30, 2014

Sports used to rely more on "mass" marketing

Steve Cannon (MPR photo)
I remember being at Wells Park for the Little League championship game when Jim Tanner was the P.A. announcer. The major league baseball all-star game was that night. I was present as a media person.
Kirby Puckett was in the all-star game. Emcee Tanner was pleased to share with us all that "Kirby Puckett just singled." Even with the Minnesota Twins as established as they were, I think a lot of us felt some provincial pride about "one of our own," at least one of our own players, getting a hit in the all-star spotlight. We felt similarly when Rod Carew excelled as an all-star.
We were devastated when Harmon Killebrew suffered a serious injury in the 1968 all-star game. I remember I was up in Brainerd at the time. We were more emotionally attached to our big league Twins then. The marketing by baseball was different. The idea in that quaint earlier time was to get everyone to be at least a little bit interested in major league baseball.
"What?" you might ask. "Isn't that elementary?" Well, baseball of course would like everyone to be highly interested. That would be in an ideal world. No business exists in an ideal world. Today we see big league sports marketing itself to its most interested fans and doing quite well by this process.
There was a time when pro basketball couldn't even establish itself here. Remember the Minnesota Muskies? And then the Minnesota Pipers? The old Minneapolis Lakers were big league in name only. One regional historian has looked back on them as being "bush." They played at the old Minneapolis Convention Center, where our family went for sportsmen's shows. I still remember a riveting casting (for fishing) demonstration at the auditorium which was probably where George Mikan's old Lakers played. Sid Hartman drafted for them? Sid should retire and just enjoy it.
Today, sports markets itself to the kind of people who watch ESPN for at least a portion of each day. That tells us something about the changes that have helped sports become ever more the money-generating machine. Those changes are based in the media and our new age of electronic communications. It's a world we could hardly have envisioned in the 1960s when I grew up.
 
Those analog days of 'CCO
In the '60s, we associated electronic communications with listening to WCCO AM radio - Steve Cannon, Boone and Erickson et al. Franklin Hobbs was the sedative with how he came across on the radio airwaves late at night. A friend and I enjoyed mimicking him - his deliberate pauses and shameless plugs, for example. Oh, but we quite enjoyed all those personalities.
Steve Cannon did his impressions that were so good, many listeners reportedly weren't aware they were impressions. Didn't "Morgan Mundane" hang around at the pool hall? Cannon and his earthy sidekick "Morgan" talked about the Vikings a lot.
Boone and Erickson gave us the great "Senator from 'CCO Land," who'd proclaim "my opponent is a scoundrel. . .and a liar!" (He'd pronounce it "LY-ah.")
"But Senator, you're not up for re-election this year."
And then, a stunned "huh?"
Those were the days when the media crafted entertainment to try to appeal to everyone. On 'CCO the system worked nicely. Much of the time the approach had a watered-down quality. We'd hear "canned laughter" on TV shows for skits and monologues, like on the Rich Little Show, that weren't funny at all. It could get depressing. Today entertainment is crafted for niche markets.
I remember back when the number of TV channels available in your average home began multiplying. Those were the times when "It's a Wonderful Life" became a Christmas classic, in contrast to when it was a current movie and considered not all that good. In the '80s it was in the "public domain," i.e. cheap to run, and filled lots of time for certain channels in the new TV universe. So today we speak of the movie like it's a classic.
At the same time, we noticed that a lot of non-Minnesota baseball games were showing up on "the tube." The Atlanta Braves in particular. And eventually, teams from both leagues who in a previous time we really only heard about in detached media reports.
Why is it that my generation was thrilled so much by anticipating the all-star game? We could see players who we read about but only rarely saw on TV in a live broadcast. By "rare" I mean about twice a summer. Players like Roberto Clemente. We could see them if their teams made the World Series. There were no divisional playoffs before 1969. The players themselves lived in a different universe through the '60s before the Curt Flood legal case changed the playing field, as it were. There was considerable doomsaying. It's true that the Calvin Griffith family wasn't going to cut it anymore in the new megabucks world. Bowie Kuhn called them "church mice." Kuhn was a nice guy but he worked for the owners.
The owners viewed that Curt Flood case with predictable chagrin and gnashing of teeth. Did they really know that the new vistas, brought forth by media changes, were going to fill their money cookie jar like never before? I'm not sure they did.
 
Fans have a full plate
Baseball fans have it better than ever before. They take for granted being able to watch players from all over big league ball on several of the myriad channels of today. Here's another major change that happened: the guys in the broadcast booth started becoming much more analytical. They were more analytical about the strategic nuts and bolts of the game, in a manner that might "go over the head" of the proverbial general population.
But baseball wasn't so much marketing itself to the general population anymore - "grandma and grandpa." Baseball was appealing to the most ardent fans. Even though this might seem to represent a narrow demographic, the sea change in the media was going to make this work. And work it has.
I remember some people being befuddled about why people would want to watch so many Notre Dame football games. Or, to see "re-runs" of those games! Or, to watch so much college basketball involving non-Minnesota teams. I actually remember someone going to the trouble to write an op-ed expressing concern about how arcane the baseball broadcast language was becoming. Gee, are we really going to be interested in all that? Well, a big enough portion of the population was.
This wasn't your father's baseball telecast. Our fathers listened to genial sportsmen-types engage in "patter" and in superficial descriptions of the action. Perfectly appropriate for those times. We expected the "man on the street" to be interested in the previous night's Twins score. I remember a "regular" at the old Kelly's Restaurant in Morris saying "I think Mark Portugal should be sent back to Portugal." We talked like that then.
Minnesota Twins baseball exists outside the attention span of many people now, like me actually. Although, I will tell you Joe Mauer is slumping because of his years playing catcher, a position that wears out your body. That's why it's wise not to assign your most talented hitters to that position. Earl Battey was the Twins catcher of my youth.

A monoculture
I grew up in a time when everyone watched pretty much the same TV shows. We might watch "The Virginian" instead of "Gunsmoke." But we were all familiar with the two shows, shows that taught us right from wrong, at the same time the U.S. was escalating the horrific Viet Nam War.
We had the "big three" TV networks along with that boring curiosity called "public TV." We may have thought it was always going to be that way. The baseball all-star game was a huge highlight. We could see Roberto Clemente bat vs. Dave McNally. A lot of us boys sat wide-eyed.
The all-star game was a symbol for midsummer. We sat transfixed as one of our Minnesota Twins would get a chance to play! We'd perspire and root for that player to do well, so as to show Minnesota in a popular light, to show we could keep pace with the East Coast cities! We cheered from a frame of mind that we now associate with the movie (and TV series) "Fargo."
"Boy, that all-star game, that was a heckuva deal, wasn't it?" (That's how us Minnesotans talk, as described in the book by Howard Mohr, an anthropological classic?)
Mr. Jim Tanner announced that Kirby Puckett single like we should all be bursting our buttons over it. And we did. Today I look upon the life of Kirby Puckett with sadness. He was violently hit by a pitched ball. His subsequent health problems including his erratic behavior, could well have resulted from that. We realize now the punishing nature of professional sports, especially football. I'm inclined to want to withdraw.
You won't find many people today who'll say "how'd the Twins do last night?" at the local diner. The ardent fans are out there, though. The baseball product reaches them most effectively, packaged the way they want. It's the way it should be.
Bill James taught us what's really important in baseball, not just batting average, home runs and RBIs.
The Bill James universe grew at the same time as the media sea change. Baseball itself changed to where we heard of "closers" and "setup men," terms that didn't exist in my youth.
Baseball pitchers used to covet the "complete game." Complete games have no special virtue attached to them today. Specialists have sprouted in the sport. The broadcasters fill us in, most thoroughly - they don't just tell the Halsey Hall style of jokes or vignettes. Hall came to Morris for the festivities honoring Jerry Koosman in 1969. How many Morrissites even know about the Koosman chapter in Morris history? I have written about that too. I played in the band.
In '69 we had the Koosman celebration, and in 1971 we had the Morris Centennial. I think it would be neat for the Stevens County Museum to have a display with photos from each of those two grand celebrations. It was a time when my boomer generation was young. Could there be a better time? Erase the Viet Nam War, and we truly had the "wonder years." We most certainly can't erase it.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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