This is a special feature that was written for The Business of Sports (www.thebusinessofsports.com)
At the end of the day, we all know the sports industry is about making money. Sure, there’s a part of it that is entertainment, but not to the degree that the industry claims, and certainly not how we perceive it to be. Listen to sports radio. People rarely call in to talk about the amazing entertainment of the teams they watched. They call in to complain or criticize or say they can do better. Look at the advertisements by the teams, that tell you about the “grit”, “energy” and “determination” of their “experienced” or “youthful” team. It’s a marketing of emotions. It’s the business of sports.
I have no issue with capitalism. Everybody deserves to make money for what they do. Owners deserve to make a profit off of sales/sponsorship reps that fill the arena with fans and sponsors that are paying to see players they believe can help their local team win. What I do have an issue with is pretending that it is for the betterment of the community if this team wins. I’m not saying local fans shouldn’t enjoy themselves when their local favorite team wins a game or a champsionship, but keep in perspective that watching highly compensated salaried athletes from another state/country play against others of the same breed should not determine your mood the following day. If/when those athletes go out into the community to do charity work, keep in mind that while there are absolutely those that do these events out of the kindness of their hearts, many more of them go out of obligation to an organization/league that requires they do goodwill because it will endear the player/team/league to the fans, ultimately resulting in more tickets sold. Many community relations departments will strategize what organizations to help based on how it affects ticket sales. Not all, but most. An important distinction is in the case of natural disasters or tragic events, like Hurrican Katrina or 9/11. Everybody opened up their hearts when these disasters happened, and players that supported recovery in any way should be appreciated as kind-hearted human beings, not charitable athletes.
I comment on this because of the Winter Classic, the annual NHL game played outside on New Year’s Day. It’s a relatively new brand concept for the NHL, but for what my opinion’s worth as someone that has now worked more time since my time at the Islanders than working for the Islanders, it was the purest hockey game event I’ve seen at the professional level in quite a while.
The Winter Classic is a big business for the NHL. It is the Super Bowl (because it’s a one day event in the Winter), without the ring. NBC throws a lot of money to televise this game, and sponsors have returned to the league to be aligned with a magical event. And I get it. Even Mike Milbury was warmer than usual because this game was about a bunch of hockey players and hockey fans enjoying themselves. The fun was palpable, even through the fighting and aggression, because it was highly skilled children playing in front of a lot of people.
When the players were asked whether the poor weather was a factor, they all brushed it off as a natural aspect of playing outside. They were blinded with adrenaline because of the experience of playing outside in front of a large crowd, but also because they were just playing outside like many of us did when we were kids. That’s what it’s all about, getting back to the child-like state of playing sports.
As a sports-crazed nation and species, we love watching highlight reals. We love it because we get to witness world class athletes execute elite athletic achievements, like we envisioned we could when we were children. The next time you watch a sporting event, remember what it was like to play that game as a child, but with the knowledge as an adult that we are not them. We can achieve what drives us, the way the sport drives the athletes. Appreciate human achievement when Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, or any random minor-league call-up performs an incredible feat. Appreciate it because it’s an art-form unto itself. If you enjoy the art of the sport, the way hockey players change lines on the fly, the way the ball swooshes through the net from a perfect shot, striking out 20 players in a game, etc., appreciate it as you would a Broadway musical or a Van Gogh masterpiece.
Ultimately, you will learn to love the sport for the beauty of the game, won’t care who wins, won’t stress out when “your” team loses, and will be happy to pay your hard earned money to see the continuation of the art you loved as a child but weren’t qualified enough to continue. Remember, the players you watch probably can’t do what you do, because they’re human, not superhuman. At the end of the day, you’ll have more fun, and isn’t that what it’s all about?