Fun and Games

Fun and Games

 

Illustration by David Plunkert

While groundskeepers spray water on the infield and major leaguers sprint in the August heat, Philadelphia Phillies Chairman Bill Giles ‘56 strolls around Citizens Bank Park, shaking hands and greeting friends before his team hosts the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The unhurried pace is interrupted once he meets the throng in Ashburn Alley, a 50,000-square-foot festival behind the outfield walls. Kids frantically run in place to measure their skills at “Run the Bases” and hurl balls during “Pitch ‘Em and Tip ‘Em.” A line forms at the barbeque stand of former Phillies standout Greg Luzinski, who signs autographs, and Harry the K’s Broadcast Bar and Grille shudders from the weight of two levels of hungry, thirsty fans.

The alley, named after Phillies Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn and unveiled in 2004 when the park swung open its gates, is bustling–even though the game’s first pitch is about an hour away. “It’s similar to going to a boardwalk in Atlantic City,” said Giles, who was a principal mastermind behind Citizens Bank Park. “A lot of people who have tickets (for seats) just stand out there.”

After the game starts, many of the 38,000 or so fans in the park are entranced between innings by the huge video screen in left field, the biggest of its kind in the National League. Phillie players talk via video about what they would have done had they not chosen baseball as a career; the rock song “Who Are You” blares as part of a W.B. Mason video promotion; the Turkey Hill Ice Cream Shuffle–which drew cheers the previous night–springs to life again.

Even the Phillie Phanatic, that low-tech throwback to now-imploded Veterans Stadium, captivates all by gunning around on his big scooter. At Citizens Bank Park, in fact, the Phanatic’s image works even when he’s not: the Phanatic Fun Zone attracts kids all game long to run around its house-like structure.

To understand the park’s raison d’etre, one needs only look at a pamphlet provided by EwingCole, who designed Citizens Bank Park along with HOK SVE. Within its pages, a vision of sports facilities is explained: “In order to reach as wide an audience as possible, professional teams are now providing entertainment ‘beyond the game’ ” teams are also offering unique preand post-game experiences to ‘extend the event time.’”

Giles sums up the new ballpark’s purpose in plain English. “The philosophy is to have enough things going on–the Phillie Phanatic, good music, and fun and games around the concourses–that the family can drive home and say they had a good time whether we won or lost,” Giles said.

At one time, games were the end-all of sports. Fans flocked to stadiums to see athletic battles and asked for little more. Television offered a game here and there, and families happily gathered around to watch the latest contest without instant replay, virtual first-downlines, or in-your-face announcers.

In the past 40 years, as the number of sports and games have skyrocketed, so too have the recreational options for our society. Fans are now able to choose surfing the Internet, playing video games, or engaging in their own athletic pursuits over a day at the ballpark, so team owners and television executives increasingly embrace entertainment to lure spectators.

“The philosophy is to have enough things going on–the Phillie Phanatic, good music, and fun and games around the concourses– that the family can drive home and say they had a good time whether we won or lost.”

Consider: At Wrigley Field, the seventh-inning stretch is a star attraction; spectators wonder what celebrity, from Ozzy Osbourne to Mike Ditka, will mangle the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Announcer Howard Cosell became the selling point of ABC’s Monday Night Football for a time, prompting at least one bar owner to offer a brick to infuriated patrons to throw at Cosell’s TV image; years later, the addition of John Madden to the program stirred excitement among football fans. In the NBA, pounding music and wild on-floor antics in between play are designed to maintain high energy levels among fans; after all, 82 games mainly in the dead of winter can get to be a bit boring. That league has even scheduled its 2007 All-Star Game in the entertainment capital of the world, Las Vegas–the first time an All-Star Game will be played outside a NBA franchise’s market.

Broadcasters strive to deliver sports in more entertaining fashion, whether through coverage of the events themselves or through programming like HBO’s Inside the NFL or ESPN’s SportsCenter. Owners and front offices try to make sporting events more entertaining, especially when the ultimate entertainment–winning–is hard to come by. Of course, someone needs to pay for all of that entertainment, and corporate sponsors, eager to draw fans’ attention to their wares, happily get in on the game, whether it’s on their TV screen or at the park.

“The entertainment aspect of sports is very important,” says George Bodenheimer ‘80, president of ESPN, Inc. and ABC Sports. “Twenty-five years ago, you had a smattering of games and a bit of highlights. Today, there’s the Web, video games, fantasy sports. Fans today want to be entertained.” So much so, in fact, that the Thursday night kickoff each of the past few NFL seasons was preceded by an hour’s worth of live and taped bands (the Rolling Stones contributed concert video footage during the Oakland-New England opener this September), was an idea inspired not by the sports league, but by ESPN.

“These [entertainment] aspects of the business will continue to grow,” Bodenheimer said. “It’s gone beyond the simple aspect of watching the game.”

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It wasn’t always so. When Giles was a boy in Cincinnati–the son of Warren Giles, owner of the Reds who later became president of the National League–the contest on the field was the sole focus of fans at Crosley Field.

“The only entertainment other than the game itself was to watch the manual scoreboard,” recalled Giles, who pretty much grew up at the Reds’ park after his mother passed away when he was a young boy. “You used to anticipate the out-of-town scores. There wasn’t even an organ that I can remember. Things have changed dramatically.”

Perhaps more than any other factor, advances in television helped to alter the look and feel of the sports event. When games started to be broadcast on black-andwhite sets in the 1950s, fans could barely see the fields– the sole camera was stationed far from the action. In the 1960s, instant replay became a fixture–as did color televisions–and games became more popular on TV.

But the seismic shock arrived in 1970, when thenlowly ABC inaugurated Monday Night Football. Moving America’s Sunday pastime to Monday was surprising enough, and primetime football games were as rare as soccer-style kickers. The real stunner, though, occurred in the broadcast booth, where Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson, and Don Meredith alternately annoyed and captivated America with arrogance, showmanship, and singing. Monday Night Football was quickly invited into about 60 million homes, and the announcers became national celebrities.

Monday Night Football was a pioneer in sports television and in television history,” said Bodenheimer, who will oversee the show’s move from ABC to ESPN next year. “These things had never been done before– adding entertainers such as Howard Cosell to the booth, the highlight presentations at halftime, the creativity, the fun.”

“The viewers want a story. We take the core–the game–and make it entertaining. Add a sense of humor, find out about personalities.”

Bill Giles ‘56, Chairman, Philadelphia Phillies

The explosion of sports popularity on television had begun. Over the next 33 years, the numbers became startling: In 1979, 1,300 hours of sports television were broadcast by national networks; by 2003, that number had jumped to 34,500 hours, according to Nielsen and ESPN Information. To get people to watch that many hours of sports, and to help keep viewers as rights fees soared, it became crucial to inject entertainment into the broadcast–whether by hiring caffeinated announcers such as Dick Vitale, planting live microphones on coaches, or interviewing players on the sidelines during games.

In the forefront of the revolution has been the nowmammoth ESPN, Inc. The network launched in 1979 with its flagship SportsCenter, a program that today draws millions of devotees, entranced by the announcers’ banter and humor. The show has been further boosted by a clever ad campaign, called “This is SportsCenter,” which has consistently drawn laughs by showing anchors switching into international garb or merely showing without adornment mascot Billy the Marlin.

Over at ESPN.com, the popular column by Bill Simmons on Page 2 talks almost as much about movies and TV shows as it does about sports, and a new column by a USC co-ed notes how freshman girls almost faint at the sight of Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart; Page 3, introduced in 2004, brings pop culture into the mix of sports. For seven years, the company has run ESPN Zones, restaurants in major cities that offer dozens of televisions to watch and interactive games to play. ESPN has introduced its own line of videogames. A new division, ESPN Original Entertainment, was created in 2001 to develop movies, dramas, and reality shows about sports to broaden the network’s audience. The list goes on to underscore how the demand for sports creates plenty of entertaining– and profitable–opportunities to engage consumers.

Bodenheimer knows the importance of entertainment– after all, the “E” in ESPN stands for “Entertainment” and the cable network’s owner is Walt Disney Co., the king of diversions. Under Bodenheimer’s watch, the commitment to entertainment has jumped. “At the core is always storytelling,” he said. “The viewers want a story. We take the core–the game–and make it entertaining. Add a sense of humor, find out about personalities.

“When you put [sports] in the context of war or hurricanes, people use sports as a vehicle to escape.”

Despite the rush to embrace entertainment, its role in sports television has also drawn criticism. Two years ago, Playmakers, the ESPN show about life in pro football, was a hit among viewers but the NFL disliked the program’s dark portrayal of fictional players, coaches, and owners; it was canceled after one season. The Rush Limbaughas- commentator experiment on ESPN fizzled quickly after he was accused of making racial comments about Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb.

And the low point came during the best-watched sports event of all–the Super Bowl. During the 2004 halftime show, featuring a slew of entertainers in a performance choreographed by MTV, Janet Jackson’s right breast was exposed to the world, and even the biggest game of the year played second fiddle to an entertainment goof–one that cost CBS a $550 million fine from the FCC.

The convergence of sports and entertainment has not been without its critics. Decades ago, Benjamin J. Rader, a University of Nebraska professor, observed what he considered trouble. In his 1984 book In Its Own Image: How Television Has Transformed Sports, he wrote:

“Before the advent of television, Americans usually experienced sports as a unique form of human drama, sharply different from other forms of entertainment” television has essentially trivialized the experience of sports. With its enormous power to magnify and distort images, to reach every hamlet in the nation with events from anywhere in the world, and to pour millions of additional dollars into sports, television ” has sacrificed much of the unique drama of sports to the requirements of entertainment. To seize and hold the attention of viewers and thus maximize revenues, the authenticity of the sporting experience has been contaminated with a plethora of external intrusions.”

George Bodenheimer ‘80, President, ESPN Inc. and ABC Sports

Paradoxically, all the hype of entertainment in sports gives a vehicle for–and at the same time creates interference for–corporate sponsors trying to get their messages across to fans. Dick Strup ‘74, sat on the board of the Milwaukee Brewers for seven years and served as an executive vice president for Miller Brewing Co., which owned a controlling share of the Brewers. During that time, the team shuttered featureless County Stadium and built Miller Park, a state-of-the-art facility.

On the Brewers’ Web site, one section alludes to “Miller Park Entertainment” and describes it in this manner: “There’s more to a game at Miller Park than just the baseball. It’s the total entertainment experience.” Spectators spotted drinking Aquafina bottled water will get a free night’s stay at a hotel and waterpark; one fan can play the “Potawatomi Crazy Cap Shuffle” to earn a gift card to a Potawatomi Bingo Casino; winners of the comfortable Midwest Airlines Best Care Seats are featured on the video board during the game.

“Twenty years ago, you put a sign up in center field and that was the end of it. Today, if it’s a static concept, you’re not going to get feedback,” Strup said. “In the ballpark now, you throw (Cingular Wireless) T-shirts to fans. ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ is sponsored by a company. Sponsorship is much more futuristic than it’s ever been. You have to entertain the masses to build brand loyalty.”

The desire to entertain has spread to those who are the linchpin of sports: athletes. Taking their cue from the desire to be highlighted on SportsCenter, they strut after routine quarterback sacks, sign footballs after scoring touchdowns, and stand at home plate to admire home runs.

Take Jose Canseco, the once-feared slugger now best known for naming names in baseball’s steroid scandal. In his book, Juiced, Canseco–who was recently seen on the Surreal Life television show featuring B-list celebrities– wrote that he believed he was “more of an entertainer than a ballplayer.” Since home runs are entertaining, and those who take steroids hit more home runs, one better understands how baseball stepped into a historic mess.

Baseball, in fact, seems to be captivated by entertainment options more than other sports–for good reason. Eightyone home games a year is the most in any sport; the interval between action is lengthy; the game itself, unlike football, has practically missed the videogame revolution because of its languid nature.

How to keep fans interested? At Yankee Stadium, the grounds crew who sweep the infield spell out “Y-MC- A” to the tune of that famous song as they cross the diamond. Minor league ballparks promote everything possible, from hiring mimes to perform on dugout roofs to letting pregnant women in for free on Labor Day, both brainchilds of Mike Veeck.

In fact, it was Veeck’s idea of merging entertainment and sports that led to one of the biggest fiascos in sports history. Son of Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, Mike unveiled Disco Demolition Night in 1979. Between games of a doubleheader against Detroit at Comiskey Park, fans were invited to bring disco records onto the field to be blown up. About 10,000 drunks stormed the field, rendering it unplayable, and the White Sox were forced to forfeit the second game.

Though Bill Giles’s ideas to entertain fans in Philadelphia (he once persuaded Karl Wallenda to walk high across the field on a wire) have never sparked near-riots, he championed one that didn’t succeed quite as he had planned. Back in the 1970s, he inaugurated an ostrich race at Veterans Stadium.

“If you put a cart behind the ostrich, I was told, they’d race around the warning track,” Giles recalled. “Our announcers were on the carts behind the ostriches. The ostriches went wild. They dumped the announcers and ran into the stands. Worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

No doubt the role of entertainment in sports has evolved mightily since. Needless to say, no ostriches have been spotted in Ashburn Alley.


David Sweet has been a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and written for the Los Angles Times and Newsweek. Today, he is managing editor of two newspapers in suburban Chicago and writes a sports column for MSNBC.com. He lives in Lake Forest, Ill., with wife Tricia, daughter Hannah, 3, and one-year-old son David.

Published November 2020