Canucks and Beyond

The Business of Making Grown Men Cry

07/13/2011 at 6:59pm EDT

From Derek Coburn at Washington Business Journal, a story about Ted Leonsis:

Last year while on his home treadmill, Ted happened upon a replay of the 1969 Jets-Colts Superbowl game on ESPN Classic. Growing up he had gone to Jets games with his father every Sunday (tickets were $7 then). That year, when he was just 12, they watched the Superbowl together on TV. Seeing the game again stirred up a host of memories not just of the game, but the entire experience: Sharing the moment with his father and calling all of their relatives afterward. Missing school to attend the ticker tape parade with his dad and 500,000 other New Yorkers. Ted became emotional and started to cry. Unfortunately for him, his wife came into the room to find him weeping on the treadmill and asked if everything was okay. His reply? “Joe Namath.” Then he told us, “This is the business I’m in. Making grown men cry, and creating memories that last 50 years.”

I don’t know what this says about the Caps, exactly (though perhaps some rival fans could have some fun with it!). But the idea of sporting teams making grown men cry? I totally get it. And women, too—the Vancouver Canucks make me cry all the time.

Levity aside, though, I think there’s a lot of truth to Leonsis’s words. The lasting gift of sports isn’t found in the details of every play, or the statistical analysis of every hiccup, but in the broader strokes. Those moments you remember for a lifetime, whether they were great successes or failures for your team or favourite players.

They didn’t make a movie about the USA’s 1980 success in Lake Placid because it was the most technically perfect game ever played… they made it because most of a nation had a deep emotional connection to that win, for a variety of reasons. That it was a great sporting event that precipitated that response was part of it, of course, but it doesn’t come close to being the reason everyone who was alive then still remembers it. The reasons go far deeper than that.

While plenty of sports ‘purists’ (or I would sometimes say, “snobs”) would disagree, my feeling is that sports are an emotional experience, nearly above all else. That might sound extreme, but consider the fact that sports —no matter how well-played—cannot exist in a vacuum. They don’t exist at all, in fact, without people who love to play them, and in the case of professional sports, people who love to watch them (who ultimately, finance them). Of course, we technically analyze every single quality of the play, too, which is the “appreciating sport for its own sake” side of the equation. But I believe that the emotional side, the cheering or booing of a game, a play or a player, is the reason 99% of people pull on a jersey.

That being said, my reasoning probably only applies to team sports. Golf, for instance, is one of those sports that the “sports-snobs” really own, as it lends itself more to exclusive rational analysis rather than emotion and personal connection to the game or the players. Let’s face it, golf fans don’t buy ‘jerseys’ with their favourite player’s name on it—they buy the correlating brands of the sponsors, which always struck me as being more about fashion and prestige than fandom. (By contrast, no fan of the 80s Canucks, ever pulled on one of those jerseys for the ‘prestige’, I promise you…!)

Leonsis has said many times that he’s not really in the sports business, but in the media business. Ultimately, that means he’s in the business of communicating about his sports interests with other people. Which is far different than just running a professional team, scraping as much cash off the top as possible and hoping for the best. (Baseball’s LA Dodgers sort of come to mind here.)

It’s by his understanding of people’s emotional connection to their sporting experience that I think explains a large part of the success of Ted Leonsis: team sports are a matter for the head and the heart.

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