John vs. Capitalism, the Soccer Shoe Edition

This is what happens if you oppose our marketing juggernaut

This is what happens if you oppose our marketing juggernaut

The Cast:

The Great Multinational Shoemongers hire platoons of designers, analysts and marketers to fine-tune their zeitgeist-piercing value propositions and beam them into the cerebral cortices of impressionable young shoe-shoppers, such as my son.

My son sees the images; he watches the videos; he reads the SEO-optimized web copy; he’s even downloaded the app, so he’s among the first to know of upcoming ripples in the Product Force. He is The Ideal Consumer.

Then there’s me, Just a Bloke Trying to Do Right by His Son and Keep His Wallet from Hemorrhaging

The Backstory

The Great Multinational Shoemonger’s latest creation is lurid, sparkly and complicated, the the novelty make my son’s eyes swim like this: @ @

Later, as if recounting a dream, he spouts its marketing specifics: “The Mephisto Dynaforce Attack 3000 has a bionomic cleat distribution pattern and a mechan-o-ptimized friction coefficient for precise shooting and passing. Oh, and they’re only $284.99!”

The Epic Battle of Epicness

This week I took the Ideal Consumer to the soccer store for a new pair of soccer cleats. On the Shrine of Consumerism (i.e., the back wall), an array of dazzling Lethal Viper Hyper Force Ultra Magic Attack gleamed, their allures singing like sirens trying to dash my wallet on the rocks of fiscal ruin.

My son’s eyes did that googly thing as his favorite pair of shoes dazzled his eyes. Reflected in his irises I saw the orange gleam of the shoes, which resembled a kind of deadly Amazon toad that emitted its own LSD.

“Dad, those are the Mephisto Dyna–”

“Can we see a pair of these black ones in a size 8?” I said to the clerk.

The black ones were sensible. They were made of leather, instead of Next-Gen ProVita Polymers, and had well-sewn seams so they looked like they might last a winter in Oregon. They had some heel cushioning too, unlike the Mephisto Dynaforce ballet slippers. I pictured those black shoes offering support and protection. My son might have to suffer a season without a Lethal Impact Friction Zone, and cleat distribution that hadn’t been optimized by a NASA supercomputer, but he wouldn’t have to suffer persistent heel pain, or a visit to the doctor.

Needless to say, my son the Ideal Consumer was aghast I would even consider ancient, graceless clunkers like those. (Ignoring the fact that his older brother had a pair, and liked them.)

The virtue of going to an Actual Soccer Store is they expect you to use the shoes to play Actual Soccer. As a result, the clerk is not one of those you find at the mall, whose enthusiasm disguises the fact that he’s been completely lobotomized by his own shoe inventory. This clerk was sad to inform me they didn’t have the black ones in my son’s size.

Sensing opportunity, my son again pointed at the beacon on the wall. The shoes looked like a pair of booties Daredevil or Spider-Man would wear, if a designer made a special edition of his costume for Pride Week.

I shook my head and recited the dull reasons for my decision: Durability. Protection. Cost (one-third of the Mephisto Dynaforces in Orgasm Orange). I wondered, briefly, how I’d become so dull and pragmatic, and then remembered all the money I would save if we bought shoes that weren’t coated in a sheen of lethal Amazon tree frog poison.

Father and Son Go Mano a Mano, in List Format:

  • There was sadness and pouting.
  • There was back talk.
  • There was an exasperated, desperate, helpless glance from father, and sympathetic clucking from the shoe clerk.
  • There was a cruel ultimatum, issued by this correspondent, to leave the Holy Shrine of Consumerism empty-handed.
  • There was a cooling off period, and some wandering around to look at soccer jerseys on the sale rack.
  • There was a cautious second approach, reciting the fact that while the Mephisto Dynaforce 3000 shoes did contain super-awesome rare earth metals, they were for indoor soccer, not turf. (E.g., footage of Ronaldo/Neymar/Messi slipping and falling on his ass didn’t make it into the YouTube Awesome Skills videos.)

The Denouement

Finally the effects of the Shoemonger Marketing Charm ebbed slightly, and the Ideal Consumer realized he could get a pair of shoes that would work on turf, and were still pretty eye-stunning — but in a more muted way, like psychedelic lake trout.

But before I could declare victory about saving enough money to buy 10 weeks of beer, the Ideal Consumer hit me with a counter-proposal, in the form of a matching pair of techno-hosiery (cost: 2 weeks of beer), which I felt I had to include to close the deal.

Post-Match Analysis

Hard to say who won this round. Did I get what I wanted? No, the Psychedelic Lake Trout 9000s look pretty flimsy, and the battle cost me 3.5 weeks more of beer than I’d budgeted.

Was the Ideal Consumer satisfied? No, his consumer lust for the Mephisto Dynaforce 3000s remains unfulfilled (though he did manage upsell me on the mint-infused soccer socks).

But fear not: the new, flimsy shoes should self-obsolete before long, and soon we’ll be back in the store to do it all again. In the meantime, if the Shoemonger ever made Mephisto Dynaforce 3000 beer cozies in that shade brilliant orange, I just might be persuaded …

When Athletes Commute by Bike

I commute by bike when I can, and blog about it sometimes. Lately I’ve seen a neat trend: celebrities talking about transportation. Not long ago, Brad Pitt was on The Daily Show, and someone pull-quoted this gem from him:

After looking at this (exhaustive) page of celebrities on bikes, it seems he isn’t the only one. But a lot of those look more like weekend cruises than commutes. Yes, but! Look at LeBron James:

LeBron James biking to work. Photo credit: @jacknruth

King James is jamming in traffic, on the way to work. Just like a regular guy! (Except for $16 million difference in our salaries, I mean.)

But that ain’t all, sports fans. Turns out that in 2008, at least, a large number of pitchers for the Baltimore Orioles were commuting by bike: “At last count, the cyclists include Jeremy Guthrie, Luke Scott, Aubrey Huff, Brian Burres, Garrett Olson and Lance Cormier.”

The original story in the Baltimore Sun is unavailable, but coverage in Streetsblog said that Guthrie rode to Camden Yards six days a week during long home-stands (on Sundays his wife dropped him off after church). His comment:

“There are some side benefits,” Guthrie said. “It’s the overall idea of being outside and exercising instead of driving. I hate cars, I hate driving, I hate doing something I don’t have to do. For me to drive downtown is a waste of gas; it’s a waste of my time. I can ride faster than I can drive.”

I can’t ride faster than I drive, but I do like the idea of having healthy legs.

My Photo With* the Stanley Cup

The Stanley Cup is visiting the Portland area, part of its summer PR tour (in these tough economic times, I guess even icons have to promote). Hockey’s great trophy, which was originally a decorative English punch bowl, was downtown today. It’s also visiting a couple of local ice arenas, and Captain Ron’s Sports Bar & Grill in Sherwood, where my hockey team used to drink. It’s going to all the storied places!

Anyhow, it was appearing today at Pioneer Square, at lunch. Time for a field trip to see the hallowed cup, which has been drop-kicked onto the Rideau Canal (1905), stolen (1907), forgotten in Montreal (1924), stolen again (1970), and sunk in a swimming pool (1993).

Despite (or maybe because of) its colorful history, it’s one of the most cherished prizes in sports.  Captains of hockey teams that win conference championships have a superstition of refusing to touch the conference trophy–they don’t want to jinx their chances of lifting the Cup.

Actually, its popularity extends much farther than NHL hockey teams. For decades, the two titans of Canadian beer production, Molson’s and Labatt, engaged in epic, stalemated trench warfare for market share. Then one year Labatt hit on the idea of including miniature Stanley Cups in specially marked cases of beer. In a market where a fraction of a percentage point gain in market share is big news, they scored the equivalent of a marketing hat trick. The lesson for you marketing students is that the gift-in-the-Happy-Meal model works for beer drinkers too–but only if you give them exactly the right gift.

Back to today. I could have my picture taken with the cup if I donated to charity, but by the time I arrived, the square was full of people:

I didn’t have time to wait in line. So I walked out on that cement ledge on the left, and got a little closer:

Better, but not that great. Then I talked a nice girl, who was taking a lunch break from jury duty, into taking my picture:

Sure, you could quibble, that the Cup is small, and out of focus, and 100 ft. behind me. All true. On the other hand, I paid it some respect. Unlike the dork in the red t-shirt (below) …

… who had his picture taken–but only after he’d put his stuffed purple octopus in the top.

Well, whatever. Mission accomplished, with only a slight asterisk. Oh, and Sherwood Helping Hands? I owe you a donation.

World Curling Injury Report

Name: Ulsrud Bjork
Position: Skip, Norway
Injury: Slipped on the hack and twisted his ankle. Strained right rotator cuff after throwing a beer bottle at his friend for laughing at his “so-called curling injury.”
Game Status: Uncertain (depends on supply of borrowed Vicodin)

Name: Stewart Ainsley
Position: Vice, Scotland
Injury: Anti-slider slid off foot; massive groin strain.
Game Status: Doubtful

Name: Borislav Todor
Position: Second, Bulgaria
Injury: Sheepskin chafing
Game Status: Probable

Name: Wally McDermond
Position: Second, England
Injury: Drinking injury
Game Status: Detox

Name: Fogdal Kierkegaard
Position: Lead, Denmark
Injury: A back to back bonspiel and funspiel proved too much for the saturnine Dane, who began treatment for clinical depression.
Game Status: Gametime decision (malaise)

Name: Graham Bemidji
Position: Vice, USA
Injury: Unspecified hog line injury
Game Status: Out

Name: Donald Pattermann
Position: Skip, Canada
Injury: Attempted a “Manitoba tuck.” Surgery will attempt to repair bulging disk.
Game Status: Out

Name: Peteris Finks
Position: Second, Latvia
Injury: Viņa akmens wa s izmet ar konkrētu pagrieziena, bet tas galu galā apstājās un sāka griezt pretējā virzienā. Lai gan tas parasti ir rezultāts izvēlēties vai sliktu ledus apstākļos, tas kaut kā izraisīja nenoteiktu rokas traumu.
Game Status: In translation

LPGA to its 121 Foreign Players: Learn English, or Get Suspended

The LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) tour recently announced that it will require all its players to speak English starting in 2009.

”Why now? Athletes now have more responsibilities and we want to help their professional development,” deputy commissioner Libba Galloway told The Associated Press. ”There are more fans, more media and more sponsors. We want to help our athletes as best we can succeed off the golf course as well as on it.”

Help them? Is that helping them like putting in a foreign language requirement, and then not offering courses to help meet it?

Help them? As in requiring them to learn a foreign language in a year—or face a suspension—when most people spend years learning a foreign language? Actually, Galloway said in a press conference that should a player get suspended, “What we would do is work with them on where they fell short, provide them the resources they need, the tutoring . . . and when we feel like they need to be evaluated again, we would evaluate.”

(Though it wasn’t clear from the story, a “Suspend first, tutor later” policy sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. My guess is that one of the first English words foreign players will learn is draconian.)

“The bottom line is, we don’t have a job if we don’t entertain,” LPGA Tour player and president of the executive committee Hilary Lunke told Golfweek. “In my mind, that’s as big a part of the job as shooting under par.”

It’s true that the biggest part of a tournament’s bottom line comes from the pro-am, and if LPGA players can’t speak English, they can’t socialize with the predominantly English-speaking amateurs who pay to play with them.

And as ESPN’s Bob Harig pointed out, it’s true that it’s in a player’s best interest to learn English. This is where they’ll be spending most of their time, so their lives will be easier if they can conduct their affairs (travel, order food in restaurants, keeping sponsors happy) in English.

But making it a requirement is unfair.

It’s a rule that affects Foreign players only, who will likely have to bear added time and expense to meet it. That’s like asking English speaking players to work full-time, and non-English-speaking players to work double-time.

”This is an American tour,” one tournament director said. ”It is important for sponsors to be able to interact with players and have a positive experience.”

Actually, the LPGA has 121 international competitors from 26 countries, and 45 from South Korea alone—that makes it an international tour.

So why not treat it as such? The only way to make an English-language requirement fair tour-wide would be to require English-speaking tour players to learn a second language in the same amount of time. (While we’re on the subject of fairness, LPGA executives could lead by example and learn a foreign language—in addition to their regular duties.)

Besides, think how happy sponsors would be if an American golf star went overseas and promoted the game and the LPGA in another language. That’s exactly the effect Kobe Bryant had at the Olympics, when he gave interviews in Spanish and Italian. He’s not just a basketball star, he’s a worldwide ambassador for the NBA who sells more jerseys in China than Yao Ming.

If Libba Galloway is sincere about helping players’ professional development, making them all bilingual would be a fairer, better way to grow the tour.

Geor/Gia on My Mind

Yesterday in the Freakonomics blog, Ian Ayres argued that “Citizenship Flexibility at the Olympics Is a Good Thing,” because that’s the only way that all of the best athletes would compete at the Olympics. And there’s a certain logic behind the notion:

Ayres writes, “The country quota system keeps many of the best athletes home. If I were the fifth-best back-stroker in the world, I’d be upset that I couldn’t compete because of when I was born.” Now, before you start drafting that mock-touching epic about the sad life of the world’s fifth-best back-stroker (Possible titles: “On My Back and Screwed”? “I Stroked and Got the Shaft”?) , consider that in in the US Olympic trials, it’s often harder to make the team than it is to make it to the Olympic finals.

Ayres considers, then dismisses, team sports as a counterargument. What he wants to argue is this:

The beginnings of a new trend are indirectly pushing us toward more meritocratic and less nation-centric Olympics. Citizenship is becoming more fluid for Olympic athletes and it’s improving the quality of competition at the games in both individual and team events.

I agree — sort of. Definitely, you get a higher-caliber event if all the best athletes are in it. But it I kept thinking that in another way, the fans are getting cheated. See, the fans are going to root for someone, which is an emotional response. And if there’s “a free market for Olympic citizenship,” as Ayres would have it, we’d have every event be like table tennis, where most of the field are either Chinese citizens or Chinese emigres.

In fact, doing away with the notion of nations would also do away with the absurd notion of a medal count, too. And you wouldn’t have outrageous events like the controversy in the men’s basketball final at the 1972 Olympics, when the officials awarded the Soviets a second chance to score a winning basket, or the case of light middleweight boxer Roy Jones Jr., who outlanded his South Korean opponent, Park Si-Hun 86-32 in the finals at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, and still “lost” the fight in a split decision. (Korean officials wined and dined the three officials who awarded the bout to Park.)

But doing away with country identities would also do away with all those incredibly poignant stories about an athlete’s success at a country bringing joy to it. And it would do away with a huge motivation for the athletes and the fans.

Consider something like the PGA Tour, where international golfers (Ernie Els from South Africa, Vijay Singh from Fiji, Mike Weir from Canada, Padraig Harrington from Ireland) tee it up with a bunch of Americans. Rooting for the individuals is OK, and the level of competition is high.

Now consider the difference professional golfers feel between competing in the Ryder Cup and competing in the the Buick Open, or in the difference in fan enthusiasm.

But then then this morning I was watching the bronze-medal match in men’s beach volleyball, when the perfect counter-argument to Ayres appeared on my telly. One team was from Brazil. The other was also from Brazil, only they were competing for Georgia. Georgia offered them citizenship in 2006, with one stipulation: that they adopt noms de jeu.

What are the two names? Why, Geor and Gia, of course. Now put them together: Geor/Gia. Get it? Geor-Gia … “Georgia.”

No, I’m not making this up. I couldn’t; it’s too bizarre. If you don’t believe me, look at the photo at the top of the blog post. That’s Geor, puttin’ up a block, with his XFL-style stage name on his jersey.

So we’re left with a quandary: Either we have the absurdity of countries fielding crappy national teams in some events (the Onion story, “Netherlands Taught How To Play Softball Seconds Before Being Shoved Onto Field Against U.S. Team,” lands this one for a perfect 10), or we have ridiculous “national teams” like Geor/Gia.

Come to think of it, either way you can’t lose. God, I love the Olympics.

Measuring the Olympics

Since the Olympics started, I’ve been interested in all the meta-scoring: that is, the “alternative” looks at the results. For example, Braniac has a story today called “The Pyramid Theory of Sports,” which offers a new slant on whether Michael Phelps is the greatest athlete of all time. The blogger, Christopher Shea, argues for a pyramid theory:

The pyramid in question is demographic. The base represents the number of people who have ever tried the sport, usually as children, while at the peak, naturally, stand the top achievers. The broader the pyramid base, the greater the athletes at the top, all other things being equal. The vetting process is simply far more severe.

Thus, Phelps is overrated “because, as a result of geography, the scarcity of pools, and cultural preference, relatively few children worldwide get a taste of serious swimming, let alone competitive swimming.”

On the other hand, a basketball or soccer star is at the top of a very big heap. Another interesting application of this (which Shea didn’t delve into) would be using the relative size of “pyramids” to compare athletes across time. For example, how good was Jim Thorpe, relative to the pyramid size of people in those sports as the same time as him?

Slate magazine is interested in the sappiness of NBC’s Olympics coverage, which is why they’re running The Olympics Sap-o-Meter.

After slogging through Olympic broadcasts of yore, we drew up a list of 33 syrupy words that NBC has chronically overused: adversity, battled, cancer, challenges, courage, cry, death, dedication, determination, dream, emotion, glory, golden, hardship, heart, hero, inspiration, inspire, journey, magic, memory, miracle, mom, mother, Olympic-sized, overcome, passion, proud, sacrifice, spirit, tears, tragedy, triumph. While these 33 words are by no means an unabridged collection of schmaltzy nouns, adjectives, and verbs, they’re a good sampling of NBC’s bathos. Think of them as the Dow Jones of sap.

Good idea! Comes with a handy bar graph (see the sappiest day), the sappiest line of the day, and even a Sapo-Meter Tag Cloud. I especially like this, because NBC’s prime-time coverage is syrup-coated. But if you wander over to MSNBC or USA, you get event coverage.

Imagine, events where the US is not a medal contender! Or even — the horror! — not in the event at all! I know I lack patriotism for saying it, but I find unsyruped event coverage (you know? just of some interesting sport people are quite good at?) quite refreshing.

In a blog called Fourth Place Medal, Yahoo blogger Chris Chase takes issue with events that are judged. Having seen the bizarre way the gynmastics judges broke a tie to give a medal to the Chinese gynmast last night, I have to say it’s worth taking a look at. Chase re-tallies the Olympics medal count by tossing out some of the judged events, an attempt to “tally medals won in sports decided on the field of play, not by a judge in a teal blazer.”

An interesting idea, but it would have been better if s/he ran the before and after medal counts (only the after is on the blog). And I’m not just saying that because I’m envious of the 6394 comments on the post!

An LA Times Olympics blog is also recounting the hardware, arguing that the “true” Olympic gauge is medals per capita, which is just dividing the national population by the number of total medals. By that token, the MPC table comes out like this:

1. Australia (5 medals) – 4,120,171
2. Croatia (1 medal) – 4,491,543
3. Georgia (1 medal) – 4,630,841
4. Czech Republic (2 medals) – 5,110,456
5. The Netherlands (3 medals) – 5,548,438
6. Cuba (2 medals) – 5,711,976
7. North Korea (4 medals) – 5,869,772
8. South Korea (8 medals) – 6,154,106
9. Italy (8 medals) – 7,268,165
10. Azerbaijan (1 medal) – 8,177,717

That’s an interesting approach, but it ignores a huge factor in Olympic success: wealth. The New York Times ran a really interesting op-ed piece titled “Our Idea of Gold,” which made an argument I agree with:

But with the federal budget deep in the red, the economy in the doldrums, a broken military in need of repair, and enormous unmet domestic needs, we can think of a lot better places to invest federal resources than in building a sports machine. Let some rich benefactors augment the $130-million-a-year budget of the United States Olympic Committee. … If we are looking to invest in sports, we would be wiser to spend money on daily gym classes and after-school athletic programs.

After the Athens games in 2004, Conde Nast Portfolio picked up the wealth baton and did a little math with it. By dividing a country’s medal tally by its gross domestic product, they argue that “the numbers rearrange themselves dramatically.”

The graphic on their site has a cool mouse-over feature, showing that some countries with small GDPs do quite well (the new top five: Ethiopia, Georgia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Ukraine).

I’ve never liked the medal count. I think it diminishes the Olympics by skewing it towards winning and national supremacy. The Wall St. Journal ran an interesting piece yesterday, “The Glory of Just Showing Up,” which points out that “among the 222 countries that have sent athletes to the modern Games since 1896, only 130 have brought a medal home.” The rest are there just for the games. While the Journal is a bit dismissive of these other competitors (“What’s billed as a meet for the fittest in truth has a second division of schlumps”), they also mention the medals per capita and medals/GDP figures.

But it also dipped its toe into another interesting issue. When describing the issues in his country (the Maldives), Adam Mohamed noted that swimmers in his country have nowhere to train but the sea, and “there has been land allocated for a pool since 1988. It’s drawings, drawings, drawings.”

In other words, many countries just aren’t rich enough for their own facilities. So they export their athletes. That’s why, if you were watching the swimming coverage, you would have seen Kristy Coventry competing for Zimbabwe, despite swimming collegiately for Auburn, or Oussama Mellouli winning Tunisia’s first swimming gold medal, despite swimming for USC, or dozens of track athletes this week who had scholarships at US schools.

I haven’t seen a metric to account for that one, though.

The Problem with Indoor Volleyball

I’ve been somewhat quiet lately, because I’ve been gorging on the Olympics. But the coverage of indoor volleyball continues to bug me.

For some reason, TV coverage consistently shoots volleyball action this way:

True, the horizontal court is visible on your horizontal TV screen, but if you want to see the interesting stuff, you’re out of luck. From this shot all we can see who’s hitting, and how far the ball is away from the net.

Now check two views from different angles:

An end or angle view let’s you see where the hitter is relative to the block, what the block looks like, how high the hitter is hitting, and where the hitter is hitting (around the block? over it? through it?).

The most interesting part of indoor volleyball is what’s happening at the net, not the back court. But it’s shot at the worst possible angle to see it!

When you shoot video from either angle, the set moves laterally, the block moves laterally, and the defense re-forms behind the block. You get to see the block form, the hitter hitting around the block … it’s much, much better.

Maybe after the Olympics I’ll apply to be a director for NBC Sports. Anyone have a contact there?