Sports: Pre-Fab Flow Factory

Fox recently offered $80 billion to purchase Time Warner. That is a really, really large amount of money. And Time Warner rejected the offer! Apparently it was not enough! So what is so valuable here? Paul Sweeting thinks it is the broadcast rights to certain sports events.

Let’s assume that Paul is right. If so, this says in bold print that the right to broadcast of sports is a very valuable commodity. So why are these events such a big, big deal? The answer is simple. They guarantee ginormous audiences, which translates into ginormous money. Just look at the numbers in Paul’s post. They will make your eyes pop out. But why are they so damned popular?

The answer is obvious, right? Watching sports is fun! But let’s take a closer look. To get at this, I think we need a bit of vocabulary. “Flow” is a term that Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi coined to describe a high energy, positive emotional state where we get so absorbed in something that we lose track of time.  This is something humans have always craved. And we have always played games as a way to generate flow. These include card games, dice games, and sports.  You name it, we played it. The cool thing was that these games were not as dangerous as reality could be and hence were more fun. Jousting, for example, was more fun than charging through a hail of arrows to your doom on the muddy fields of Agincourt. You got the drama and usually lived to tell the tale. And watching games generated just as much flow and were even safer!

Then something weird happened in the 20th century. It was discovered that folks got excited about bringing the voices of celebrities into their living rooms. All they needed to do was buy a box (called a radio) and adjust the dial. Very cool! Milton Berle was talking to you! A few years later, things got even better. It was discovered that folks got even more excited when they could bring those celebrities full body into their living rooms — or at least moving images of them. All they had to do was buy a slightly more expensive box (a TV) adjust the antenna, choose the channel and there they all were! Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Desi Arnez and on and on. They were all there and doing cool stuff in cool places with cool gadgets! Even if you were a boring old fuddy duddy, you could get an intense dose of flow at home.

None of this would have been very interesting from a business point of view, except for one more discovery. It was discovered that when those celebrities told people to go out and buy stuff —- like cigarettes — folks did it! In fact, you didn’t even have to tell them to buy. You could just show the product being used by someone … like James Bond. Bingo! Broadcast media, via advertising, became a money making machine. Now that was interesting indeed!

So what about sports? Broadcasters started fooling around at sporting events early on. And it turned out that people liked listening to the game almost as much as being at the ball park. Initial fears that less people would show up and buy tickets proved to be nonsense. Broadcast grew the audience. Later on, TV grew the audiences much, much more. Now you could see the game better than you could if you were there. Broadcasting sporting events, or at least certain types of sporting events, guaranteed an audience to advertisers that was even bigger than The Man From Uncle. And this was — and still is — very exciting from a business perspective. So we got world series, world cups, super bowls, grand slams and on and on. Even professional bowling. Is there a college league for that? These days, there is always a big, big sporting event on tap.  This is a big, big deal. So you can see why Rupert Murdoch was willing to plop down such a huge amount of lucre for a big piece of it.

It is a “win win” deal, right? Folks get relatively cheap fun, and producers and broadcasters make lots and lots of money. So why did I say it was weird? There is just one problem with this arrangement. The problem is that broadcasting has a weird effect on people — and I don’t mean buying more stuff than they need (though that is a big odd). The audience just sits there. Watching stuff on TV imposes 100% passivity, except when a touchdown is scored and you spill your beer on the cat. It is sort of like being connected to a intravenous flow of of … well, yup. Flow. Remember that word? The thing we used to get from playing games? Now we get flow out of thin air — as long as the TV is on and Tiger Woods is not too far behind.

Ok. If it is fun, why complain? Good question. A lot of people would say that there is nothing wrong with this at all. TV is just the modern equivalent to the thrills that Romans got at the coliseum. There is nothing wrong with being entertained, right? Flow is flow, no matter where it comes from. And there is something to this. When people are entertained, they are less bothered by anxieties.  Like whether junior is pulling the dog’s tail or whether your mother in law found the stash of pot hidden in the cat food box. Lowering “psychic entropy” is good for you.

But let’s ask this question. Why do we need to be entertained? Is real life so … boring? Our old friend, Csikszentmihalyi shouted out back in 1991 that if life is so boring, it is because we make it so ourselves. And the more we get hooked on pre-fab flow (like watching sports), the less flow we are capable of generating for ourselves. In other words, sitting in front of the TV watching the World Cup actually makes us less interesting people. Poor Csikszentmihalyi! No one listened. And there you have it. Today, the broadcasting of professional sports is a pre-fab flow factory and we love it! Who cares if we are less interesting! Bring on the cheerleaders in their hot pants! Let the games begin! Folks like Rupert Murdoch are not stupid. They know that means: big, big bucks and another yacht or two or three.

Will things stay this way? It seems so. We want pre-fab flow just as much as ever (even from politics) and we want flow from the web too. And mobile internet means that soon we will be able to carry broadcasts of sporting events around with us to watch as we chat. Sorts embedded into your car windshield? Bring it on! And not only that — virtual reality video games may soon enable us to pretend that we are Lebron James playing the championship game that we watched yesterday. He missed the shot, but you made it! Take that Lebron!

So … are we permanently hooked on pre-fab flow from broadcast sports? Gulp! Let’s see how this game plays out. But you may have noticed that the media sports game is not really about sports. Sure sports are involved, but there is something much bigger behind this. it is bigger than any single sporting event. That bigger thing is the magic elixir of low and product placement. Sports are tailor made for the producing flow, so it is no surprise that they are such good product placement vehicles. But as you peer into our crystal balls for a glimpse of the future, you are likely to see ever new ways that this elixir will work on us.


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