Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 15, 2009

Burning Bright

I cleared the TSA screening at LAX at about 5AM one day last week. I dragged my disassembled gear over to the bench. (Thank you, LAX. Not every airport provides a place to sit down and perform this ritual.) I tied my shoes and patted every pocket to make certain that the Huckleberry, keys, boarding pass, wallet, glasses, pens and everything else were where they should be.

On the wall behind me I spotted a current staple of airport advertising. The poster depicted Tiger Woods contemplating some impossible lie in an underwater sand trap surrounded by ravenous hyenas with vultures circling overhead, while Queen Elizabeth, the Dalai Lama and someone who might’ve been Desmond Tutu looked on (I might not have remembered all these details precisely).

The caption read something like, “Now what will you do?”

I laughed and pointed out this wonderful irony to my colleague, and she laughed, too. We know something about the vagaries of corporate sponsorship. For seven years, our company sponsored one of the world’s best professional cycling teams. “Our” team consistently won some of the most important cycling competitions, including multiple results as the top team in the Tour de France. Our riders included some of the great stars in the sport. It was exciting to be associated with those world-class performers and their equally outstanding management. There was, however, also a downside to the involvement with cycling, as revelations of consistent use of performance-enhancing substances dimmed some perceptions of the achievements of the riders.

A woman sitting near us on that LAX bench heard our comments on the irony of the advertisement. She said, “Imagine how I feel. That’s the company I work for.” We shook our heads. We could certainly empathize with this woman, having heard our share of disparaging comments about the allegations against the cycling pros. (However, this empathy was somewhat mitigated by the fact that her company is also one of our firm’s biggest competitors).

Linking a corporation’s image with an athlete or team is fraught with risk. We knew that long ago. Mr. Woods’ current situation and that of his many sponsors opens again the question of whether performance on the field matters more than or less than personal behavior. Certainly my company got lots of press when one of our riders was competing for the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, and it was a media heyday when one of them stood on that top step of the podium on the Champs Elysees holding the trophy aloft. We also got a lot of media coverage when allegations of performance enhancement swirled around this or that rider. Having seen the pros and cons of it with our cycling sponsorship, I know that it can be a great motivator for the employees of a company to be identified with a winning team. There’s the chance to follow them on television and the press and, sometimes, a chance to watch them in person or meet them at events. And it’s a wonderful medium of contact with clients and prospects and shareholders. Everyone loves a winner.

And, as we’ve seen recently, everyone is fascinated to distraction when an icon cracks.

My firm discontinued its sponsorship of cycling last year as it made some shifts in the focus of the marketing and branding efforts. I miss the opportunity to feel the direct connection with that sport and its people from slightly inside the ropes. I miss the great days I was able to spend with a video crew shooting footage of the team, or interviewing them as they talked about their season. There are a couple of team caps on my top shelf, signed by winners of the Tour de France. But it’s a business, not a fan club here. In numerous companies right now, there are extremely serious discussions about whether to continue their sponsorship of a certain golfer, or any golfer, or maybe switch to NASCAR or Professional Putt-Putt Golf.

Just remember, when you see that NASCAR champion leaping out of the winning car and pouring the sponsor’s beverage or hand lotion or motor oil over their heads, it’s a business, and that is a business professional wearing all those logos. Somebody made the decision to pay to see that label turned toward the camera in victory lane. Athletes aren’t heroes unless we turn them into heroes. But they’re always business people, and if they make poor decisions, it is an integral part of what is meant by “performance,” even if certain behaviors do not occur on the field of play.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Maureen Blandford, Brad Nixon. Brad Nixon said: Burning Bright: http://wp.me/pH6ZJ-8w […]

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  2. _My Life as a Sports Hero_

    This may come as a shock to some of you, but my name and likeness have never graced any billboard or airport terminal. No, they haven’t even been on any post office bulletin board. I seek no publicity for my manifold accomplishments. I do not trouble myself with corporate sponsorships and the responsibility that they bring. Athlete that I am, or was, I need not worry about such matters.

    Growing up, I never liked gym class in school. I was your prototypical 98 lb. weakling. Couldn’t run. Speed? Think molasses going uphill in Alaska. Couldn’t hit or catch a ball. (This includes non-moving balls.) Poor vision. Tiny mouse hands. Whatever. My limitations were limitless. I had no business being involved in anything resembling a sports activity, other than as a spectator.

    In the 1960’s, attendance at my junior high school gym class was mandatory. We played outdoor softball a lot. With a real softball. Not with a whiffle ball or soft rubber ball. The real deal.

    Many attempts were made to study and correct my numerous deficiencies in this sport. As I could not hit a moving target (i.e., a large round, slow-moving softball), the instructor put a ball on a practice tee to watch me swing. I always managed to swing under the STATIONARY ball, hitting the five foot tee perfectly, and missing the ball. SWOOSH! Ball falls harmlessly to the ground in front of my feet. Ego-boosting experience. That was the offense.

    As for the defense, no one brought baseball gloves to school in those days. We just played barehanded. Infield or outfield. “Wassamadder? Can’t cha catch? It’s only a big fat softball?” Easy for some; not for others.

    One day, I was playing the shortstop position, which, as anyone familiar with baseball knows, is the position on the field where you are most likely to have to catch hit balls. Why I was placed in such a position I cannot imagine, lest it be for the mere amusement of the Roman spectators as I was fed to the lions, so to speak.

    So as I stood in the arena calmly awaiting my certain demise, a good hitter stepped up to the plate. On cue, he hit the first pitch right at me: a laser drive on a line from the hitter’s shoulders towards a point a couple of feet above my head.

    Then a strange thing happened. Time slowed down. Way down. Although the ball reached me in probably a second, to me it seemed to take forever. I had time to think about it. Catch it or not? Risk my delicate mouse fingers getting shredded all over the infield as the ball strikes them at 100 mph? Or just let the ball fly over my head and have the outfielder deal with it? Who would care?

    I jumped. THWAP! The ball got stuck in my two outstreched hands. It was as though I had grabbed a soft, stationary balloon with tar on my hands. I didn’t drop it. It didn’t hit me on the top of my head and dribble to the ground. It was MINE!

    I tossed the ball to the pitcher. It hit him in the chest and fell to the ground. He simply stared at me, unable to fathom the enormity of the miracle that had just occurred before his very eyes. “Waddayalookinat? I do this every day,” I quipped.

    After we successfully retired the opposing team’s batters, it was my turn to bat. I missed the first two pitches by roughly the distance between Earth and the Crab Nebula (to wit: 6,500 light years, give or take an inch). OK, one strike left. “BUNT, BUNT! Just stick your bat out in front of you,” they yelled. Who was that yelling — the opposing team? No. My teammates. “F__k it. I’m going all in. I’m not wimping out,” I thought.

    I swung at the next pitch and hit it over the head of the left fielder. However, due to my Cheetah-like speed and grace, I only got a triple, instead what should have been a home run.

    Even a blind dog finds a bone once in a blue moon. On that day, at that time, the planets and stars aligned for me. But I saw some kids have days like this every day. They never knew what they had. I also saw other kids never have days like this. They knew.

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    • The other approach, which I favor, is to take up a sport so obscure you’re bound to be a pretty big fish in that pond with minimal effort. At one point I could say I was one of the better squash players in Indianapolis – which I equated to being one of the better basketball players in Ulaanbaatar. Kids aren’t the only ones who like getting trophies…

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      • John, I am confident that you would be one of the greatest basketball players of Ulaanbaatar.

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  3. I’m thinking Jorkyball is my next refuge…

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