Why sports fans should fear Disney Corp.

By Maggie Stansell, Columnist

MOUNT BERRY, Ga. – Are the marketing techniques and methods perfected by the sprawling Disney Corp. set to ruin professional sports?

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Following Disney’s admittedly impressive marketing lead, the pro sports leagues seem determined to turn every aspect of sports and sport spectatorship into a consumable. For example, when ESPN discovered that University of Louisville football could bring good viewership ratings if the school would play ball with the network’s schedulers, Thursday night college football was born. It was like adding a shiny new ride at Walt Disney World, only viewers don’t have to leave their sofas to take part in the wonderment.

The issue at the heart of this approach is what French theorist Guy Debord calls, “the empire of modern passivity.” This unthinking mode of consumption is potentially dangerous, both in sports and for larger society. As a design for both pro sports and the media that cover and depend on those sports, this Disney-fied approach robs authenticity of its athletes and views “fans” as little more than purses, wallets and credit cards.

Unlike some of the more discussed issues in media, such as gender and race representation, this idea of a commoditized, unthinking consumer-fan hasn’t yet been adequately debated because audiences are so blinded by the spectacle that is professional sporting events to even take notice. And the media so complicit in creating this sort of woo-hoo wonderment certainly aren’t going to critique what is for them their chief money-maker.

Turning televised sporting events into something that resembles a Disney theme park requires several things, according to author David Andrews, who wrote the article, “Disneyization, Debord, and the Integrated NBA Spectacle.” These elements are: using broad organizing themes, “massifying” consumption, diversifying the forms of merchandising, and manipulating fans’ emotions and passion for their players and teams.

To do these things, pro sports collude with media to choreograph, produce, and sell “spectacles,” to use another of DeBord’s ideas. Turning, say, a football game into a spectacle often carries with it the objectification of women (think cheerleaders and sideline reporters), the furtherance of masculine homogenization (Michael Sam, anyone?), and the stereotyping of both gender and race (Serena Williams has a few things to say about both).

For example, women in figure skating have to be hyper-feminized through their costumes and performance routines, as Feder explained in her article, “A Radiant Smile from the Lovely Lady.” Another example is provided by LeBron James in any of his many Nike campaigns. He is paraded as the idealization of hegemonic masculinity for the “Messiah” and “King James” narratives, according to Mocarski and Billings in their article, “Manufacturing a Messiah: How Nike and LeBron James Constructed the Legend of King James.”

The process of creating a spectacle can also mean typecasting and presenting media portrayals that paint otherwise complicated human beings as simple heroes and villains. This Disney-style character development means that social issues get ignored.

ESPN, which is coincidentally a Disney-owned media property, might portray Colin Kaepernick as a traitor for kneeling during the national anthem, but will the “entertainment and sports network” address the systemic racism plaguing the country that Kaepernick is trying to draw attention to by dropping that knee? Perhaps more importantly, do we care? Or are we content to label him unpatriotic and move on?

Passive sports consumers are encouraged not to care about the deeper issues, even not to raise them. The far more important thing to “media-sport” is being entertained and consuming (Got your March Madness national championship hat yet? Your NFL Draft Day commemorative team hat? Your “SunTrust Park Inaugural Season” commemorative jersey?).

So what? As long as we can watch March Madness, the Super Bowl, and Louisville football on Thursday nights, why should we care? Have Disney and its marketing acolytes transformed all that we know into an unrecognizable nightmare from which we can never wake?

Absolutely not. There are several steps we can take.

Dylan Thomas’s poem encourages us, even its title, “not (to) go gentle into that good night.” When you are in Plato’s cave and see nothing but darkness and perhaps the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl projected onto the wall, know that it is never too late to wake up and seek true, considered, self-examined freedom. Understand that when something becomes a spectacle, there is a capitalistic motive behind that production. Don’t accept “media-sport” at face value, in other words. Become an informed participant rather than remaining an unthinking, passive spectator.

Maybe, just maybe, if many who consume “media-sport” spectacles recognize that media’s glare blinds us to many of the problems the spectacle either suppresses or even causes, they might just be able to become agents of change rather than part of those very same problems.

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