Watching a New York Rangers hockey game on television the other night, I saw, in a single rush up the ice, ads along the boards for GMC and Gulf, Dodge and Sharp and Snapple, IBM, Office Depot, Dunkin' Donuts, PaineWebber, Kodak, Amtrak, Bud Light, MetLife, American Express, Starter and Surge. I got my replays from the MCS Canon Cam and kept track of power plays with the AT&T scoreboard graphic. The Rangers sat on a bench underwritten by the History Channel. (How apt!) At the first intermission, they exited beneath a sign hawking Ranch 1 chicken. Then the commercials started.
Scientists say humans rarely use even 10% of their brain capacity. They keep mum on what we do with the other 90%. Longtime television sports viewers like me, though, know the truth. All additional cerebral storage space is devoted to commercial retention. I may not know my parent's phone number, but I can remember 30-year-old beer jingles as though I'd written them myself.
At a time when a journeyman point guard eats up the price of a private island in the Aegean, sports franchises and their television sponsors are desperately counting on fixed-position advertising to help pay their enormous freight. Commercials aren't enough anymore, not since the remote control made them zappable. Broadcasters and franchises need to sell ad space you can't flip past or turn away from: Watch the game, see the spot. Whether it's the scrolling sign built into the scorer's table at a basketball game ( Hardee's, Auto Zone, IBM) or the under-bumper NASCAR Cam ( Valvoline, True Value, 1-800-How-'Bout-A-Kidney), certain forms of advertising are now inescapable. You take them in without really seeing them; they're in the very air—it's like we're inhaling them. A Mercedes logo hanging from the net at a tennis tournament you don't even remember watching is taking up space in your subconscious right now. (That's why you can't remember the Gettysburg Address.)
Any pretense to community or charity or even neutrality in the naming of golf tournaments, bowl games or stadiums was sold long ago. But there's still some available screen space, so that's being sold, too. Hence your Miller Genuine Draft sports ticker and CNN/SI's "The New Dodge Inside Sports" sports update.
I'm not even sure how effective this stuff is. Seeing Pavel Bure spit out a bloody tooth while he's sitting in front of a Dunkin' Donuts sign isn't likely to make me run out for a cruller. Nor is watching a stock car painted up like a box of Tide tumbling end over end at 180 miles per hour, gouts of flame billowing from its ruptured fuel tank while trailing a meteor shower of car and human body parts behind it, going to make me feel more confident about my next load of fine washables.
This phenomenon is even worse in Europe. Many of their leading social critics complain that popular American culture is a little too popular there, that McDonald's and Coca-Cola and Tom Hanks are just tools in the new age of Yankee commercial imperialism. What's really surprising is that there's any room left for them. Have you ever seen a Formula One race? Or a Swedish hockey game? Not a single square inch of salable ad space is wasted. From the toolboxes at Monaco to the butt of the goalie's breezers in Stockholm, there are endorsements for Elf or Adidas or Wheetabix plastered everywhere.
Which is probably the next move for North America's insupportable big-time sports economy. Auto racing is already there, a model of shameless commercial saturation, but in the decade ahead you'll begin to see the proliferation of pinched microcommercialism of on-uniform advertising in other sports as well. Can't we just skip a step and save everyone some trouble and confusion? Introducing your Ford Rangers! Your Mobil 1 Synthetic Oilers! Your Wishbone Salad Dressing Thousand Islanders!
I wasn't using my brain for anything important anyhow.