Winning Isn’t Everything. In Today’s Sports it Amounts to Very Little

By Jason Menard

“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” – Vince Lombardi.

“… I’m not sure people want to see a team at home that has a 9-0 record but the average score is 12-7. I think they’d much rather see us .500 at home with an average score of 38-34.” – Chris Rudge, executive chairman and CEO of the Toronto Argonauts.

The former quote is the stuff of legends; the latter was reported by Daniel Girard of the Toronto Star in his recap of the Rudge introduction as Bob Nicholson’s replacement.

Lombardi wasn’t the first to coin that phrase. UCLA football coach “Red” Sanders used it a couple of times in the 50s. He was also not the last. In fact, I’m sure thousands upon thousands of coaches have used versions of this to motivate their squads to greater glory. Yes, it’s a quote that shows how sometimes sports loses its perspective in the grand scheme of life, but it’s also a quote that epitomizes the all-out dedication and sacrifice teams expect of each other to reach a common goal.

Rudge’s quote? While it may not inspire anyone to greater results, it is a better, more honest reflection of today’s commerce-focused sports market.

Teams are no longer teams; they’re brands. The on-field or on-ice product serves as a vehicle to deliver greater revenue streams from ancillary sources. From corporate sponsors, in-venue advertisements, logoed merchandise sales, and other licensing opportunities, the success of many teams is decided not with the final score, but rather with the bottom line.

Take Canada’s two iconic hockey teams: the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Since the Harold Ballard years, the Leafs have known Maple Leaf Gardens or the Air Canada Centre would be packed – regardless of how the team fared on the ice. It’s a brand so powerful that winning is ancillary, no matter how much the fans whine and plead to the contrary.

With their last Stanley Cup coming in 1993 (after never going more than seven years between raising the trophy), the Habs are seemingly now focused more on the mother tongue of its coaches and captains than who is best for the job. An inspirational leader like Saku Koivu was criticized for his inability to speak French. And Randy Cunneyworth is a dead man walking simply because he lacks the ability to converse in the language of Molière. Why? Because to appease a segment of the fan base.

What’s more important: winning a Cup or making sure that potential Molson’s buyers aren’t angered to the point where they boycott the beer?

The Superbowl used to be nothing more than a cottage industry – far behind the more-popular college bowls. Now it’s a two-week marketer’s orgy, where the game is nothing more than a necessary evil. The next-day talk is focused on the commercials that ran between the game’s action as opposed to the plays run between the game’s lines.

Basketball games are displays of sonic and visual bombast, interspersed with actual plays; boxing, MMA, and auto racing have devolved into mobile billboards for sponsors. And now we have a team president admitting that the experience is more important than the result.

Who cares if the Argonauts win, as long as the fan experience is good? Forget finding the next Sam Etcheverry under centre – can Drake perform at every half-time? Winning isn’t the only thing anymore — and it’s rapidly devolving into only a minor thing. At least to the suits upstairs.

But we have only ourselves to blame. Those long-suffering Leafs’ fans kept lining up for tickets. Even if a season’s ticket holder got fed up and surrendered his or her seats, there were thousands upon thousands ready to snap them up. Jerseys, logoed merchandise… anything bearing the Maple Leaf continued to be snapped up.

Fans have only one medium through which to express their displeasure – their wallets. They can call into phone-in shows, write angry blogs and comments, but until they stop buying tickets and merchandise, it won’t matter.

Maybe Rudge is right – winning is nice, but not essential to the experience. And maybe we should be thankful that at least we finally have a team leader who is honest about it.

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