Friday, December 17, 2004

Defining a Market

Ah, the holiday season is upon us. That means an opportunity to watch "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Scrooge" on every channel offered by your service provider of choice, endless holiday jingles, and bells ringing at every store. It also means hearing stories about some scam involving toys for tots or money for mommies in which the toys don't get to the tots and the money never reaches mommies.

But that's the good side of the holidays--television shows showing human spirit, music intended to put visions of sugar plums in your head, and gestures that, though at times fraudulent, are sometimes also genuine.

The bad side of the holiday season is the mindnumbing, ever-increasing commercialization of the season. Don't get me wrong, I'll take the genuine bargains, even if it means pretending that it is Christmas in November or that there is a "holiday season" after January 1st. But enough with the incessant pandering to our "needs." I don't "need" a chicken rotisserie, or the first three seasons of Seinfeld on DVD, or an NFL replica football with my team's insignia on the side. I might use those things if I had them, but I definitely do not need them.

Which brings us to the point of this article as it pertains to the Vikings. Much as marketers of the holiday season continually attempt to expand the borders of our perception of the holiday season, much as these same marketers also attempt to convince us that we or our loved ones need an item--that the item is indispensible, that our lives would be shambles without it, that foregoing a mortgage payment or two to purchase the item is prudent--marketers of professional sports, albeit a bit johhny-come-lately to the marketing party, are now fully in on the gig. And this reality begins with the NHL, detours through the cesspool that is MLB, and stops at the doorstep of the NFL.

With the NHL owners and players seemingly at a by-pass, and the NHL season likely lost, NHL owners are attempting to stir public resentment toward the player's union by taking public positions on the players' union's most recent proposal. In essence, the NHL has adopted the Sprewell Doctrine, claiming that the players' proposal will run the owners out of house and home and ruin the league. To which most observers simply shrug their shoulders. After all, if the NHL really is run by such dunderheads--and there is reason to believe that this is the case--there is little hope for fans that the issues that the fans really care about--rules to improve an increasingly boring product, reasonable ticket and concession prices, and fan-hostile ownership groups--will ever be addressed by the NHL.

In the end, we see through the NHL the way most people see through the Christmas spray-on hair ad. We simply don't need it. So we dismiss the NHL with well wishes and an indifference as to whether it ever returns.

But other professional sports groups have done a much better job of appealing to the masses and making their product appear to be a necessity. And, in so doing, these groups have made sports fans believe that their town needs professional sports of all shape and hue. That their town will suffer unbearably without such franchises. That their own lives will become insufferable without a home team for which to root.

MLB has long played this card. Just a few short years ago, exhibiting the near-height of arrogance, MLB threatened to contract the Twins if Minnesota did not build a new stadium for local curmudgeon Carl "I'm Takin' It With Me" Pohlad. MLB one-upped this near-pinnacle performance by acting on the threat, thwarted only by a local court with a soft spot for the Twins.

We thought that the entire contraction deal was dead after that, as MLB agreed with the players' union not to attempt contraction again until 2006--a concession that the players' union repaid by agreeing not to challenge any 2006-or-beyond contraction attempt. With the Twins consistently winning the American League Central and the Expos moving to D.C., there would be no need, no possibility for contraction.

But with the Expos'--the Nationals'--move to D.C. now in doubt MLB is at it again.

The problem in D.C. is that the D.C. city council, apparently concerned about high unemployment rates and declining graduation rates, is more interested in attempting to address these problems than it is interested in putting up $400-600 million dollars to finance a new stadium for MLB.

And why shouldn't the D.C. city council feel this way? Why should it build a stadium at city expense to make the Expos/Nationals more appealing to a buyer so that MLB can make more money off of the sale of the team?

MLB has responded to the city council's position by establishing a position of its own, setting a December 31st deadline for the city council to agree on a stadium funding measure. Of course, MLB has no recourse should the city council refuse to oblige, because MLB has no other place to go. Puerto Rico did not work, Montreal did not work, Las Vegas has no field, and California is already beyond the saturation point for professional baseball teams.

That leaves only contraction. But contraction is not possible until 2006. And even then, MLB has work to do. It must convince the Twins to tank it in 2005 as it would look pretty bad--if MLB and Selig are really concerned about image--if the four-time defending ALC champions were mothballed. And MLB must convince another city that they need baseball. That their lives have been incomplete without a MLB team.

That is one angle.

The other angle is that MLB, in its own pathetic way, is trying to market baseball in D.C., even as it threatens to pull MLB out of D.C. The real reason behind the recent contraction talk is not really to warn of possible contraction or a move to another city that has somehow managed into the 21st century without their own team, but to attempt to highjack two cities--Minneapolis and D.C. MLB wants both cities to build new ballparks on the public dime. That's what this is all about. And MLB is feeding on the public sense of need--as in, "we need this team."

And you either buy what MLB is selling or you do not. So far, we have resisted in Minnesota. We like the Twins. We wish the Twins well. We would like a new stadium that allows us the pleasure of outdoor games during the summer month and indoor games during the late and early winter seasons that buttress July. But not any just any cost.

We have certain sensibilities in Minnesota that usually restrain us from paying with our emotions what our heads tell us we do not need or can and should obtain, if at all, at a better bargain. Part of that sentiment informs us that an owner who is worth over $1 billion dollars, who has had a sweetheart stadium lease for over twenty years, who has used the Twins as either a tax shelter or an outright profit-making tool for that same period, and who has made his money off the sweat of others in an industry well-known for its pariah nature, ought to make a sizeable contribution to the endeavor.

Failing that, our sensibilities tell us, there ought to be no stadium deal. Because we do not sense that the stars are yet so aligned in Minnesota, we are not buying that the Twins are a must have in the state. And we are not buying MLB's threat to once again attempt to contract teams that do not cave in to owner demands. If it happens, it happens. C'est la vie.

But where MLB has failed to move the passions of Twins' fans, the NFL might soon move the passions of Vikings fans. Like MLB, the NFL is wont to threaten to allow a team to move if it is in the interests of the NFL and the owners. The NFL is committed to Minnesota through 2011--the final year of the Vikings' current lease on the dome. After that, all bets are off.

With the passing of time, we can expect more public posturing from the NFL and Red regarding the open LA market. The NFL will say that it cannot stand in the way of an owner residing in a market unwilling to build a new stadium to replace an aging facility (NFL-speak). And Red will say that he is losing money in Minnesota (Red's way of saying he is getting loaded off Minnesota fans but could get even more loaded off of Southern California fans), and that he has no choice but to look West.

This is the NFL's way of saying that Minnesotans ought to begin early the soul-searching regarding the value of the NFL to Minnesota, that the Vikings are a necessity for Minnesota.

But we need to see behind the marketing. We need to understand that we can live without the Vikings. And we certainly can live without a carpetbag-owned team. There may be an adjustment period, but we will survive.

And, in its heart of hearts, the NFL understands this. It understands that the Vikings in Minnesota are more valuable to the NFL--particularly with Red threatening a move to LA--than the NFL is to Minnesota. We can do without this team because we have options in Minnesota. We can spend time outdoors, travel up north, or take in some other sporting event.

But what of the NFL without Minnesota? The NFL needs Minnesota for at least three reasons. First, the Twin Cities are the 13th largest television market in the United States. That's money for the NFL that they cannot recapture by moving to any other city currently without a team and with a viable stadium and willing locals. Even a move to Los Angeles is less beneficial than the NFL makes it appear as the LA market is currently served by the increasingly popular San Diego Chargers, who play a short drive from LA. Second, a Vikings' move to Los Angeles threatens the NFL's coffers by allowing Red to take the entire pot. The NFL would prefer to put an expansion team in LA, thus giving the NFL a cut of the expansion fee and Red only a small part of what he otherwise would reap. Third, the NFL has already dealt with the move of two storied franchises in the Colts and Browns and the fallout did not help the image of the league. And, in the end, the NFL was compelled to ensure teams in both cities, albeit in circuitous fashion.

Yet the NFL is selling us a different picture. And being more adept at marketing than MLB ever can hope to be, the NFL likely will continue the soft sell with subtle pressure. The NFL will hire locals to rally public sentiment in favor of a new stadium and to juxtapose a picture of Minnesota with the NFL against Minnesota without the NFL. Not surprisingly, the former picture will be one of hope and glory, while the latter picture will be one of bleakness and despair. And the NFL, like holiday-season vendors, will attempt to persuade Minnesotans that they cannot, and should not try, to live without their product.

And the NFL might succeed. Not because we need the Vikings, but because they have been here so long that we think we need them. But we do not.

As much as I enjoy the Vikings, I can live without them. I liken them to Mountain Dew. Mountain Dew offers three things--caffeine, sugar, and carbonation. All useful ingredients at times, but mostly ingredients that one probably would be best to cut back on rather than intake more of. And while foregoing the Dew might be difficult at first, particularly given the caffeine withdrawal, in the end, it ain't so bad.

I like the Vikings, but I can give them up. And I suspect that, whether fans recognize it, they have it within themselves to give up the Vikings if the alternative is to be highjacked into buying something that we don't really need and, possibly, cannot afford. We like the Vikings in Minnesota, but we do not need them. We would like a new stadium for the Vikings, but we do not need it. What we need is to understand that, as the stadium issue heats up, we are in the driver's seat, not the passenger seat.

Up Next: Pregame. What the Vikings Ought to do on Sunday (and probably will not).


Anonymous said...

On the ESPN pregame show, Michael Irvin just called out Culpepper and Moss for lack of leadership. Irvin was right to do it. It had to be done.

What Steve Young said about the history of the organization and not being able to get rid of the ghosts of the past is absolutely true.

The Vikings have never been a bulky physical team that can just beat the snot out of opponents and outlast them. I'd like to see the Vikes keep Onterrio Smith and also bring in another back in the mold of Jerome Bettis.

Less finesse, more brute strength.

Anonymous said...

I think SOD can handle the load, but the Vikes need to use him and drop the rotation bit. If the Vikings want Bennett in the game, they should use a two-man backfield. I'd like to see it. It would also help in passing situations as the Vikings would not be forced to disclose their intentions by subbing SOD for Moe (who should be playing more). See also the pre-game comments.

The comments about Culpepper are reasonable. Too often, Daunte settles for a bomb to nobody because he failed to identify the defense or starts the game without any noticeable intensity. That doesn't work in the NFL in which teams are defined by their level of preparation and intensity. Daunte needs to improve in both areas.


Anonymous said...

Michael Bennett is a great role player. You need a lot of role players on your team. Kleinsasser is a role player. Kelly Campbell is a role player. Bennett should be in there to stretch and burn the defense. You need a big bruising running back, though, like a Riggins or an Alstott, to establish an identity.

Even when the Vikings play with a lot of heart, they lack brute strength. They can consistently out-finesse teams like the Lions. At some point, though, you face a situation where you have to pick up a yard or two through sheer force. The Vikings have lost four Super Bowls and at least four NFC championship games because, in the end, they got out-physical'd.

You don't lose the finesse element. You keep Randy Moss and Michael Bennett.

I realize you can't just go out and sign or draft a Jerome Bettis. But you've got to make an effort.

The Chuck Foreman model of running backs is a good one, but it's time for the Vikes to downplay that and try the Franco Harris model.

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