Friday, October 29, 2004

If the Bad News Bears taught anything — beyond the imprudence of filming a sequel in Japan — it’s that sports don’t pay for themselves. A misfit Little League team needs uniforms. Enter Chico’s Bail Bonds. The lesson? Beggars can’t be choosers.

But darned if they don’t try.

Earlier this week, Michigan and Ohio State announced a pending sponsorship deal for their yearly football clash, with telecom giant SBC forking over $1.06million to rename the game the “SBC Michigan-Ohio State Classic.”

(In a diplomatic master stroke, SBC planned to invert the school’s names for next year’s contest. The Buckeyes and Wolverines also were set to play pingpong in North Korea. OK, so that last part was made up).

Predictably, the proposed pact touched off a flurry of sanctimonious hand-wringing. The schools are selling out. The game will never be the same. Nothing is sacred. Under pressure, both universities promptly dropped the agreement, as Michigan’s athletic director dubbed it “inconsistent” with the school’s values.

Boo-hoo. Here’s a tissue. Next thing you know, Sony will want to slap a “Spider-Man2” ad on third base. Somebody hide the children. And cover their impressionable young ears, lest they hear that “can you hear me now?” guy talking over the Verizon halftime report.

The horror.

Look, let’s be honest: Ohio State and Michigan chickened out, without cause. Because the only real problem with sports sponsorship is that there isn’t enough of it. No joke. Outside of Olympic beach volleyball, massive corporate subsidies are the best thing going in athletics today, a rising tide that lifts all boats. At least those not captained by Gary Bettman.

You say scale it back? Nah, let’s amp it up — to 11.

Give us Cincinnati Bengals jerseys with the Exxon tiger emblazoned across the front. The New York Yankee Candles. The Fiesta Bowl turf painted yellow and red, the better to resemble Tostitos’ cheese dip and salsa. Anything for a buck. Hopefully more than a few.

Go ahead and snicker. Moan about rampant commercialization, money ruining everything. But ask yourself this: Where would you rather see those dollars go?

When Ohio State and Michigan each pockets $530,000 of SBC’s loot, that means more scholarships. Shinier weight rooms. Truly impressive athletic director golf junkets. Likewise, when the local pro club sells signage space at the bottom of its stadium urinals — trust me, it’s only a matter of time — that means more money to spend on talent. Donald Sterling exempted. Simply put, the home team gets stronger. The white hats get better. Richer, anyway, in the case of the Washington Redskins. And that’s a good thing.

The alternative? Easy. SBC keeps the cash, company stock goes up a quarter of a point and some Trump-shaming executive gets an even fluffier golden parachute. Cue “Rock ‘n’ Roll, Part II.” Stockbroker? No? Then why on Earth would you root like one?

Let’s go So-ny! Clap! Clap! Clap-clap-clap!

Closer to home, Maryland is seeking a $15million alumnus donation for naming rights to its football field. Judge not. College sports are expensive. Life is expensive. The rest of us should be so lucky. Imagine if Bud Light offered to sponsor your weekly poker game (as opposed to the other way around). You’d jump at the opportunity. Heck, most of us would be happy with a free life-size cardboard cutout of the Coors Twins. We all have a price. Nothing wrong with that.

Still, some argue that incessant sponsorship sends the wrong “message.” Please. Big-time athletics are rife with dubious messages. Women are sex objects (hello, cheerleaders!). Violence is the best way of solving land disputes (hello, tackle football!). Stomping on a helpless, prone opponent will do nothing to diminish your status as the star of the greatest college basketball game ever played (hello, Christian Laettner!).

The list goes on. Granted, college is an intellectual place, even at Florida State. But who outside the English department actually reads that much subtext into a game? If you’re bothering to watch, chances are there’s only one message that matters: 16-10, first and goal, a minute to go. Beat Yale.

Besides, let’s not forget major college sports function first and foremost as living, breathing billboards for their schools. In fact, that’s pretty much why stadiums take up campus space that could otherwise go to libraries and research labs. (Sorry, but “The Zone Blitz: Theory and Practice” is not a genuine field of academic inquiry.)

Bowl games raise your profile. Tournament runs juice admissions. Just ask Georgetown. Better still, winning keeps alumni happy. And happy alums give back to their alma mater. Generously. Never mind the lost innocence of simpler times.

Speaking of which, the Michigan-Ohio State hubbub recalls baseball’s brief stab at selling ad space on uniform sleeves. Fans flipped out. Ralph Nader got involved (never good — look what he managed in the last presidential election). And for what? Bud Selig didn’t exactly propose papering over the roof of the Sistine Chapel with NASCAR decals. It’s just baseball. There’s nothing sacred or holy about it, no matter how many times Pedro Martinez points skyward. God won’t be offended by a Radio Shack logo on Derek Jeter’s shoulder, won’t send a plague of locusts to devour the SBC ads on the Ohio Stadium scoreboard. Frankly, the Big Guy has more important things to worry about. Like the silent conspiracy to prop up Darko Milicic.

Misguided as the executives who greenlighted “Joey,” commercialization’s critics know not what they bemoan. After all, the main beneficiary of corporate America’s sports largesse is none other than the average fan. Why do couch spuds get to watch hundreds of games for free? Advertisers pick up the tab. Networks spend millions for rights, thousands on broadcasts and presumably a couple hundred bucks to fancy up what remains of Al Michaels’ hair. They make it all back on the commercials. The big, bad, awful commercials that are going to sully the purity of sport, unless it’s the Super Bowl, in which case the ads often are more competitive than the game itself.

So cry about SBC-style deals if you want to. But while you’re at it, at least make like the cinematic Bears and scare up some corporate backing. Kleenex already sponsors figure skating. With a little ingenuity, you could be next.

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