Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cult Appeal

"Cults often gather around powerful works of the second class. Fans feel that they have to root for them." -- 3/10/09 New Yorker
This was from a piece about the history of scholarship on vampires, which just goes to show you how I smoke crack in coming up with things to fill the bloghole. But you knew that already, right?

Sports are the largest non-religious cult on the planet. They exist in a netherworld between entertainment and news, reality and artifice, and have whatever meaning the user chooses to put on them. They are almost certainly a vice on a personal level and a significant virtue on a community level. The uninterested and the passionate have equal amounts of befuddlement as to how one could possibly choose that level of interest.

But what happens when the cult, as it were, becomes the majority?

The Super Bowl is just about the only telecast that has held its mass audience in our ever-fragmenting media marketplace. Every other event -- even something as meaningful as, say, when a nation goes to war -- gets less audience than this four to five hour orgy of commerce and violence. And it is fascinating to me, on a macro level, to wonder if that will change in my lifetime.

Now, some of this is pure snake oil salesmanship, in that some people are, amazingly, just watching this for the ads, all of which can be seen online now and on many other telecasts in the future. So there will be some deterioration there, though I suspect, not very much. King NFL will still reign over all.

However, and this is the key point... are the games actually getting new viewers, or merely dominating what's currently available?

NFL players are developed in a virtual silo from the rest of humanity. By the time that a promising kid is, say, 12 years old, he's shunted off into an increasingly difficult filtration system that's devised to eventually employ, at most, maybe 1 out of 1,000 players. Outside of the four-year (or less) sink or swim atmosphere of college ball and some almost entirely irrelevant minor leagues, there is no on-the-job training, no late-life conversions, and very few foreign phenoms that come in from outside the approved path. The game is too violent, and the margin between good and not good enough too small, for any of that to kick in. It is, perhaps, the clearest and most effective meat grinder meritocracy in American business. (Which is why, when cults of personality pervert the process, it is so repugnant to the eye. But enough about the last five years of Brett Favre's career.)

With very few exceptions, NFL fans understand this and root for the laundry, despite the predominance of fantasy football. If Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Ray Lewis, Rae Carruth or Michael Vick helps your laundry win, you are OK with it. If Brian Dawkins, Jerry Rice, Deuce McAllister, Orlando Pace or Jerome Bettis lose their utility, you want them gone, no matter what their past performance has meant.

We root in an inhuman manner.

We would probably not care, on some level, if the players were not human at all.

(Which leads us right back to steroids, but jeez, I write enough about this as is.)

So to be deeply into the NFL is to be indoctrinated, generally at a young age, to the ways and history of a more or less immoral fan base, probably at a time when you didn't have enough other things going on in your life to keep the interest minor. I'm not sure that we do that anymore to our kids, and for the most part, that's a good thing. If my kids got as much into a single thing -- say, Pokemon or their handheld video game or dolls or Star Wars or what have you -- as I did as a kid with sports... well, as a parent, I'd probably see that as less than healthy and try to diversify their interests. (If nothing else, to keep them focused on schoolwork. And this is in no way meant to be a slight on the Shooter Mom, who gets special dispensation for also being, well, an NFL addict.)

Combine this with the hypermarket for tickets, the increasing use of late night games, the highly inappropriate commercials shown during most sporting events (seriously, try to watch the Super Bowl with an 8-year-old girl without cringing; you can't), and the increased perception, if not amount, of serious criminal behavior among players...

Well, you get something that's just not terribly kid-friendly, or at the very least, doesn't seem as interested in being kid-friendly as it did in my formative years. It seems like a short-term (and short-sighted) marketing decision to me, but the NFL isn't exactly looking for advice on how it markets its product. To be fair, by the numbers, it hardly looks like they need any help.

So where do we wind up after this merry little trip around the brainpan? With a list (yes, it's always a list with me) of truths that we hold to be self-evident...

1) Sports are a mature cult.

2) Saturation / membership is probably at an all time high.

3) The money and time commitment that's involved are excluding, and increasingly will exclude, younger generations. (Along with all of the other things they are growing up with, of course.)

We now return you to your regularly scheduled foolishness, secure in the knowledge that if you got through this one, you've also drank deep from the FTT Kool-Aid.

Now, who's up for changing their last name to Shoooter?

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