Creeping Corporatism - March Madness Edition

Rick North Facebook

Kellogg’s, which owns Pringles, now apparently owns Magic Johnson. Or perhaps it’s just renting him for awhile.

So it’s come to this: Magic Johnson, all 6’ 9” of him, has been reduced to a talking potato chip.

Yesterday morning, I was watching ESPN’s wrap-up of the weekend’s college basketball tournament, where Kentucky had edged previously undefeated Wichita State. The network announcer was interviewing Magic Johnson, who had played for Michigan State and beaten another undefeated team, Indiana State, for the national championship in 1979. Johnson was reminiscing and commenting on this year’s tournament.

But this interview was different. There was a third party present, silent, but speaking volumes nonetheless. Johnson was introduced in connection with Pringle’s chips and as he was talking, a Pringles can, along with two bowls of dip, was constantly visible right next to him on a table. In the background, two more Pringles cans were displayed on a shelf. Kellogg’s, which owns Pringles, now apparently owns Magic Johnson. Or perhaps it’s just renting him for awhile.

After the Johnson segment, ESPN aired part of a Tiger Woods news conference. FedEx and Quicken Loans logos were arranged all over the wall in back of him. When major league baseball starts in a few weeks, look on TV at the walls behind home plate viewed from the center field camera. You’ll see all kinds of corporate billboards, but they’re “virtual,” visible only to TV viewers. The baseball game you’re watching is, in part, an illusion, but the money paid to register images on your eyeballs is quite real.

I realize commercialism in sports goes back to their very beginning. Growing up in upstate New York and an avid Yankee fan (please forgive me, I was young and innocent), I knew that the team and Ballantine beer were joined at the hip. General Mills and Wheaties have used pictures of athletes on their cereal boxes since 1934, starting with Lou Gehrig. And businesses have their names strategically placed on baseball, football and soccer walls and fences from Little League fields to the majors.

For decades, civic stadium and arena names have been answering the corporate siren song. Portland’s Rose Garden name was retired this year when Moda purchased the naming rights to the building, one of the few remaining non-corporate major arenas in the country. The stadium used by the Portland Timbers has been a baton passed from PGE to Jeld-Wenn to Providence Health Care.

NASCAR drivers are famous for being plastered with logos of their sponsors, almost to the point of absurdity. It’s not as blatant, but you rarely see a professional or college athlete without a Nike, Adidas, Reebok or other logo on their uniform.

Take a look at the Timbers’ jerseys. The lettering for their main sponsor, Alaska Airlines, is four times the size as the name of the team, symbolic of the influence of corporations on the sport. Maybe I’m just naïve and nostalgic to think it should be the other way around.

But ESPN, Pringles and Magic Johnson have crossed a line, which is what is most disturbing. Commercials used to be separate from programming. Now ESPN has merged the two into infomercials. If this becomes a trend, one of the last remaining firewalls in sports broadcasting between journalism and hucksterism will have cracked. Like so many potato chips.

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