#6: Put Me In, Coach
The changing sports landscape, high school cam bots, HOH, and John Fogerty
THE SLOW PITCH
September 1979. It’s a brisk evening in Lannon, Wisconsin. The regular crowd shuffles in for Game One of the American Professional Slowpitch Softball League World Series. The Milwaukee Schlitz are facing the Kentucky Bourbons, a battle of staggering proportions. Miles away in Bristol, Connecticut, a father and son work feverishly to ensure their all-in bet doesn’t strike out. The stakes are high: the two entrepreneurs just purchased RCA’s unpopular 24-hour satellite transponder and payment is due in 90 days. Anheuser-Busch, their sole source of revenue, expects a sportscast and live game coverage. If the screen goes to popcorn during ESPN’s first-ever live broadcast, the Rasmussens are finished.
Present day. ESPN’s global reach touches everything from traditional radio to TikTok, beaming into 86M+ households. And, to think, it all started with a slow pitch softball match.
But founder Bill Rasmussen’s proof-of-concept wasn’t just a hunch. He realized that, in order to compete with NBC, CBS, and ABC, he’d need to beat them at their own game by unearthing all the exclusive opportunities that would captivate the American soul. Lo and behold, Sunday softball was the pastime of the day. Viewers seeing the game on-screen for the first time ever, complete with expert pre- and post-game analysis, gobbled it up and advertisers began knocking down the door.
THE LONG GAME
Major sports leagues are caught in a pickle these days — fans expect action, whether that be activism or opposition. And an interesting phenomenon is afoot: folks, especially younger fans, are taking interest in more niche, less-divisive sporting events. After all, sports should bring the world together, no?
Cue the Premiere Lacrosse League — adopting a player-first model similar to the storied sports franchises that actually did bring people together, a la the Miracle on Ice, the Dream Team, and even the Harlem Globetrotters, the Premiere Lacrosse League rejects the city vs. city model, choosing instead to showcase the ruffest ryders of the sport in all-out, collarbone-smashing glory. That’s right, the most elite lacrosse players travel city to city, (stealin’ time and whatever’s written in your heart), for exhibition-style mashups that have fans oozing like a bag of Gushers.
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
This strategy plays into a larger scrimmage unfolding in the present-day sports arena: fans are entirely less likely to be Red Sox or Yankees die-hards, opting instead to follow their favorite players both on, and off, the field. Athletes’ expanding shelf-life coupled with shorter contract terms are likely culprits for this paradigm shift. But think about it, access is radically different today. Thanks to early pioneers like ESPN, fans are no longer locked into regional broadcast contracts, meaning they can follow their idols wherever they go.
ESPN brought unprecedented national access to previously local-only and niche sporting events, with a commitment to serve sports fans anytime, anywhere, (Rasmussen famously promised to cover literally every NCAA March Madness game and everyone thought he was off the ball). It worked, so much so that ESPN 2 came on the scene in 1993, offering more “youthful” coverage of hyper-niche sporting events.
But broadcast innovation, exclusive coverage, and rare behind-the-scenes content isn’t enough to captivate Gen-Z’s waning interest in traditional sports anymore. Sports leagues and franchises need to evolve as well, (perhaps take a peek at Premiere Lacrosse League’s playbook, eh?). By embracing social media, offering up livable salaries and benefits to its talent, and creating excitement around this niche sport from the inside out, the PLL is changing the game quite literally, proving to team owners everywhere: if you build it, they will come.
P.S.: those of us at The Fast Times prefer sporting events with a running clock, a la soccer and lacrosse, because bedtime.
Hoop Dreams / Steve James, 1994
Bend It Like Beckham / Gurinder Chadha, 2002
Fat City / John Huston, 1972
Bill Durham / Ron Shelton, 1988
Whip It / Drew Barrymore, 2009
Pixellot: The Wave of the Future
A revolutionary sports camera system packed with alien technology is coming to a high school stadium near you. And you thought Windows ‘95 was stacked...
The camera system is essentially a cyborg-esque production team in a single futuristic package, complete with lenses that have a sixth sense for play action and a flux capacitor that integrates directly with scoreboards and game clocks to churn out on-screen graphics — meaning athletics programs nationwide are running their own show now (sorry AV clubs, we still got love for ya).
So why are high schools inviting overlord camera bots to capture every play? Money! The Suits peddling the Pixellate camera operate an on-air network that pays real, cold hard cash to high schools as a rev-share program. And high school athletics is a big deal in some states (did we drop a sassy Friday Night Lights quip yet?)...
“Pixellot’s patented technology automates production with a multi-angle camera that captures indoor and outdoor footage, switching on at the time you set. Auto-tracking software follows the flow of play and zooms in on key action. While algorithms generate clip highlights and show replays. The solutions are optimized for fourteen different sports, meaning broadcast-quality coverage for all.” - Pixellot Sales Pitch
Whether you’re in the bleachers, making out under the bleachers, or nowhere near the bleachers (‘cause you’re too cool for school, right?), know that Big Brother is watching — along with thousands of other varsity wannabes who wanna relive the best of times...from their La-Z-Boy.
HOH: abbreviation. House of Highlights, a sports media brand that focuses on viral video clips for a predominantly Gen-Z audience
For today’s sportsfans, it’s all about the land of the free and the home of the highlights as they ditch fanatical fandom in favor of convenient consumption. Fans from 18-34 are saying ‘no thanks’ to extra innings, instead catching the highlight clips on apps like HOH, Bleacher Report, TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram.
Gone are the days of watching every twist, turn, and steal real-time — the top plays are cut and pasted to the social sphere before the stadium lights go down in the city.
OK HERE’S THE SITUATION
Kids are increasingly playing centerfield, balancing choice and control between sports fandom and whatever the hell else they do these days. Given more content options than ever before, (along with leagues, broadcasters, and even athletes leading the bases), kids don’t need to be glued to the television to catch all the inside baseball. No doubt, they still want to root root root for the home team but they now do it on their own terms.
So, take ‘em out to the ball game, buy them some peanuts and crackerjacks, and leave at halftime. The good news: no need to battle the parking deck exodus anymore.
John Fogerty, longtime baseball fanboy and Creedance Clearwater Revival cofounder, wrote a song in 1985 that became a staple at just about every damn baseball stadium across the Red, White, and Blue. The song, “Centerfield”, is now the center of Fogerty’s legacy, outshining even that fortunate one. In fact, Fogerty became the first musician honored by the MLB Hall of Fame in 2010.
On his 75th birthday last year, Fogerty was ready to play. Joined by the ultimate all-star teammates, (Fogerty’s Factory, a “little family band” he assembled with his kids during the pandemic), the rocker hit it out of the park — performing his now-iconic tune to [an empty] Dodgers Stadium, a dream of his since he wrote the song way back when.
“It took 75 years & it’s a little different than I envisioned. On my birthday I get to fulfill my dream playin' “Centerfield” in centerfield with my kids on the team. Hopefully it won't be long until we are able to have baseball back. “Put me in coach, I'm ready to play!” - John Fogerty via Twitter
How’s that for a grand slam?