Restrictor Plate Removed

The front page headline of a recent Sports Business Journal read: “Sports’ biggest brand builders: Power players using sports to amplify their message”.

Most of the issue was dedicated to the integration of sports and the corporate world. Not surprisingly, this theme is similar to most every other issue of SBJ. That statement is not a slight, it’s just reality. See this Time magazine article about youth sports.

Sports = business.

Photo: Time Magazine. The headline says it all. 

Two weeks ago in Louisville, a small group of sport tourism practitioners had the opportunity to hear from the iconic Jim Host, who by most accounts, is credited with developing the first partnership between the NCAA and a corporate partner.

Host’s stories were incredible, a tale of taking multiple leaps of faith, scratching and hustling to survive, and building what became Host Communications, a dynasty in the sports world. I learned an immense amount from him in one short hour and am grateful for that opportunity.

Flipping a couple pages in the SBJ issue, and there was an article about IMG College‘s Social+ having now inked deals with 14 big name universities, opening the door for advertising to appear on social channels for institutions such as Ohio State, Duke, Florida State, Michigan, and Oregon. The article noted “subtle” advertising expected, as not to “smash you in the face”.

I couldn’t help but think, that’s how it always starts.

Does anyone remember the old Jeff Foxworthy skit about NASCAR, Jeff Gordon and post-race interviews? Here it is and it’s still hilarious today:

The end of the skit plays on the history of the 9,354,078 sponsors in the sport (okay, I made that up, it’s actually 9,354,079). But the point is the same. In the good ol’ days we used NASCAR as the example of high-commercialization potential of sport.

Heck, rodeo has been a king in this area for quite some time, tagging sponsorships onto every square inch of real estate. I was even at a George Strait concert once where the camera panned into the Wranglers tag on Strait’s backside…talk about product placement! By the way, I love me some King George!

Exhibit A. 

Flipping a few more pages along and the issue honored a list of top corporate executives responsible for building their brand through sports. It was the usual suspects: Pepsico, Coca-Cola, Visa, Pizza Hut, FedEx…<<insert major company>>.

The ensuing spider web of this commercialization in sport is big, and gnarly. Higher education funding, psychic income, corporate social responsibility, competition, etc. etc. etc.

All of this makes me wonder.

Throughout my doctoral program, we have discussed sport and business. In professional sports it’s one thing to capitalize on every aspect of the game, but for intercollegiate “amateur” sport the implications are far more complex. Corporations, institutions, and others making big time coin off of non-professional sports.

I wonder if Mr. Host, had any idea the magnitude of impact corporate sponsorships would eventually have on intercollegiate athletics? Sidenote: Mr. Host sold his company to IMG in 2007 and he continues to be involved in a variety of stellar community-based initiatives in and around the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

I wonder if there is a proverbial “line in the sand”, if we’ve crossed it, and what the long-term impacts might be? Here’s an article from the Chronicle on Higher Education back in 2009 discussing possible tax implications of collegiate sport. On the other hand, this 2015 Forbes article contrarily poses the necessity for the rise in commercialization.

I wonder how we preserve sports as fun, recreational?

I wonder what the the business of sport will look like in 10 years?

One thing is for certain, the restrictor plate is off the car that’s driving the dollars and cents related to commercialization of sport. My hunch is that this car doesn’t come equipped with “reverse”.

Photo: Getty Images. I had no idea this is actually what a restrictor plate looks like.

The same SBJ issue noted Nike as the top-ranked brand for engagement with 10,318 posts, 84,418,896 engagements, 5,488,771,539 impressions, and an estimated value of $109,213,014 over a span of a year from Sept. 2016 to Sept. 2017.

However many millions, trillions and gazillions of impressions, it must be working to reach the ultimate objective of those companies – to make money. Or else why continue? The wheels are rolling so fast, that a number of warning signs are speeding by as a blur out the window.

This post isn’t meant to slam the money-making side of sports. I greatly admire the innovation and “stick-to-it-ive-ness” of folks like Mr. Host. This post is more about asking questions than answering them. Besides, the end metrics driving these trends are found in you and me…our eyes and ears to the message…and our resulting purchase decisions.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Arena packed with us, the fans.

So I’m curious, what is our role in this landscape? I welcome your thoughts.

A Franz Kafka quote worth pondering in the current context is, “From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.” This is Stoll on Sports.

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