Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Game 3: A Discourse on the Legitimacy of Consumer Dissatisfaction with Hockey Spectacle and the Means of Expressing Said Dissatisfaction

[Is post. Is half-serious. Still not sure which half.]

If you live in Montreal, on any given day, what do the Montreal Candiens look like?

Do they look like a group of 23 guys who play pretty good hockey? No. No, they do not. If you are an ordinary person out there on the street, you barely ever see a life-sized, human, normal, fallible, mortal Hab. You see GIGANTIC Habs. Habs ten stories high and illuminated from within. Habs in Technicolor, Habs in sepia. Modern Habs, yes, and also a century of resurrected Habs, and all of them perfect, scoring awesome goals, making big saves, throwing huge hits, skating fast, shooting hard, and looking with ferocious determination towards an apparently inevitable destiny. Habs smiling on billboards and staring from busses, Habs looming over you on the sides of buildings. Habs on TV, Habs on the radio, kicking ass and taking names.

The Canadiens have a terrific marketing department. It must be one of the best in the NHL. They wake up every morning with one of the most solid, most committed fan bases in the League just waiting to buy their product. They don’t really have to do anything. But do they rest on their laurels? Sit back and toss out half-assed 20-second-spots being like, “Yo, we got some hockey over here, if you want.”? No. No, they do not. They get up every morning, fortify themselves with very expensive low-fat macchiatos, put on very expensive suits featuring nearly-invisible stripes, go into the office, and work hard. They sell the crap out of that hockey team. They sell it every way they can. They sell it on every city block and across every medium the media has to offer. And it ain’t no soft sell neither. No, man, these guys do their market research, and they sell a great, bludgeoning shameless selling. They don’t sell the Habs as mere hockey. They sell them as epic history. As ethnic heritage. As the heart of the city. No romantic feeling has ever been felt about the Candiens that their marketing department has not inflated, polished, and turned into a series of TV spots.

We would like to think that we are savvy postmodern people who understand marketing tactics and can see through them. Unfortunately, the marketers went to school for this shit, and they are much, much savvier than we are. They’re playing on a whole different level than we can properly imagine, quintuple layers of irony/sincerity, intellect/emotion. They know what we know that they know, and more besides.

Which is all a way of saying that when fans buy Habs tickets, they’re buying a fantasy. They’re not buying it for the game itself. You can see the game itself nearly as well on TV for absolutely nothing, and anyway, if live hockey is really what you’re into, you can see that at most any rink in Montreal. The appeal of going to a Habs game is not just watching a good hockey game, it’s experiencing the spectacle that is YOUR MONTREAL CANADIENS.

There are two elements in play in every modern sport. One is the game, which appeals to a certain analytical-competitive mindset, and the other is the spectacle, which plays on a more romantic-communal one. The fixation with the game inspires fantasy sports, statistical analysis, message-board-trolling, and actual playing. The fixation with the spectacle inspires officially licensed headwear, affectionate nicknames for players, Mitch Albom, and major-league season-ticket purchases.

The spectacle is what the Canadiens marketing team is selling, and the spectacle is what the audience goes to see. The franchise does everything they can to make it appropriately spectacular. At the live games, they do their very best to manipulate our feelings and responses as effectively as they can in advertisements. They select emotionally appropriate music that encourages cheerful crowd response, they design contests and scoreboard games to keep us busy when they play is stopped, they provide a shit load of alcohol and attractive women in tight clothing.

They can control everything except the game itself. The actual game is stubbornly resistant to programming and planning, and on any given night, any species of match might occur. It may, indeed, give us all the feelings of excitement and sentimentality the team advertises. Or, just as often, it will totally suck. We are not buying our fantasy experience, we are buying a lottery ticket that might turn into that experience, or might just as easily turn into the emotional equivalent of electrodes on the genitals. It’s a major investment that can, on occasion, turn into profound, nearly existential disappointment, the kind one feels when something fundamental- something, say, tied up with your history, your ethnicity, and your civic pride- fails.

What do you do with this disappointment? Etiquette commands that one swallow it decorously, weep a single tear and then go home holding that repressed rage in your belly, perhaps to be vented on some hapless flatmate at a later time. But you are, as we have already mentioned, already quite drunk, and etiquette seems very far away and anger very near.

This is when you are morally obligated to boo.

Booing is the one, sole, single thing fans can do that actually hits. Hits obliquely, yes, because it hits the team and it’s not necessarily the team that’s really at fault. Yes, they lost the game, but then again, Hal Gill never promised you a rose garden, did he? Booing the team for losing a game you’re watching is like going to a factory and bitching out the assembly-line workers for making a defective computer you happened to buy. Rationally speaking, we all understand that some machines will be flawed and some games will be lost. But whereas a computer store that sells you a broken machine is going to (if they’re good) bend over backwards to placate you, a hockey franchise’s response to selling a shitty product is to double down on the lies, raise the prices, and issue a very politely-worded fuck-off-and-die to anyone who disapproves.

Which they can, because they’re a licit monopoly, and if you think about your hockey franchise’s attitude towards your satisfaction with your purchases, it should fill you with a great wave of crusading, Teddy-Roosevelt-ish, trust-busting fervor, because think about how happy that computer company would be to fuck you if there was no competition for your data-processing dollar.

The reasonable thing to do, of course, is not to vent your sense of disappointment and betrayal on the poor skaters, because they’re just the means of production, and the franchise has convinced you that they can produce something that is virtually impossible to produce with any regularity or predictability. The reasonable thing to do would be to write angry letters to the marketing department, but they’re just going to giggle and throw them in the trash anyway. Also, that involves some kind of planning and the purchase of stamps, and as mentioned previously, you’re pretty drunk. So you boo. You boo and heckle and rain down insults from the cheap seats, a raw lament for that sense of history and destiny, those unforgettable moments of pure excitement that you wanted to experience tonight and are not experiencing. And maybe it won’t change anything, but at least they hear you. The team executives in the luxury boxes, the coaches on the bench, the journalists in the rafters, all those people who under normal circumstances could not be more contemptuous of the feelings of an ordinary drunk fan with an at-cost 15th-of-the-month lottery seat- they hear your anger, your disappointment, your unhappiness. And they squirm.


patti said...

wickedly right on.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece. If I may, I wonder if I could suggest writing shorter. I think there are, to paraphrase "Amadeus," too many words.

E said...

patti- thanks!

anon.- i appreciate the courtesy of your suggestion, and out of respect for your values, will respond as concisely as i can: no thanks. i'm keeping my extra words until you start paying me to write to your standards.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece.
If I may, I wonder if I could suggest keeping the writing just as it is. I think there are, to paraphrase "Me" exactly the right number of words.