Friday, September 25, 2009

On White Outs, Holsteins, and the Power of Marketing

I've never understood how marketing actually works, but I suppose that's exactly the point. I guess the best campaigns slink quietly into your consciousness, subtly altering behavior, effecting gradual change, until what once was seen in a certain way is supplanted by an entirely different viewpoint. I write about this a little bit in my new book; the way Nike revitalized its image behind Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan is truly remarkable (and probably speaks a great deal to Jordan's warped self-image). It works without anyone realizing it's working, and to be honest, it kind of freaks me out a little; I mean, I love Mad Men, but I think we can agree that Sterling Cooper's whole ethic is based in a skeezy kind of brainwashing. Anyway, I can think of no better literal example of a real-life marketing campaign shifting an entire culture than with Beaver Stadium, the home of Penn State football.

For decades, we knew the Beav as a 90,000-seat opera house. When we were young, we thought, Wouldn't it be great if all these people in this confined space actually joined together and made noise? I grew up in the timid confines of section WG, on the West side, far from the students' section; the loudest things would ever get was when people began mooing like Holsteins as they waded up the overcrowded ramps on the way to their seats. Beaver Stadium was dominated by the conservative voice of the majority, by people who were, frankly, like my parents, who generally disdained the notion of standing up during a football game unless it involved a watered-down Coca Cola and a trip to the men's room. Of course, now that I'm older, I understand where they're coming from; I don't particularly enjoy being surrounded by goofballs jeering in my ear, and I won't attend a concert unless I have a place to sit, preferably near the men's room. (In other words, my life in my thirties is essentially a Flomax commercial.)

But the problem at Beaver Stadium was that the stoicism of the old supressed the greatest advantage any college football team has--which is, of course, the inherent lunacy of the co-ed population. For years, all of us in the students' section preoccupied ourselves by hurling cups and marshmallows and passing mascots over our heads; we couldn't make enough noise to overcome the dour majority, so we didn't really bother. And there didn't seem to be any way to fix it.

In 1981, a young columnist for the Daily Collegian, name of Tom Verducci (I've heard the kid's done all right for himself), wrote a story about it. Headline: Blue-blood Fans Should Learn to See Red. "Penn State football fans are too quiet," Verducci wrote. He interviewed Penn State's longtime play-by-play man, Fran Fisher, who admitted that historically, Beaver Stadium had always been quiet, and no one knew why, and no one seemed to don the Penn State colors in the way Nebraska fans swarmed visiting opponents in an ocean of scarlet. One athletic department official blamed Eastern snobbery. Joe Paterno (wisely) refused to say anything provocative at all. One of the team's captains admitted it would be a lot cooler if fans brought the noise, but what could he do? That's just the way it was, and that was the way most of us presumed it would always be.

And then earlier this decade, Penn State hired a man named Guido D'Elia. Guido is a marketing consultant--a sort of Don Draper of the sporting world--and his contributions have been well-documented, but still, knowing what he started with, they cannot be overestimated. D'Elia began to make gradual, and then substantial, dents in the culture of stoicism at Penn State. Even now, I'm not really sure how he did it, but slowly, these things began to actually work.

The students stopped hurling objects at each other and actually began focusing their energy on the game itself. The remainder of the stadium, driven by the energy of the students, joined in. A silly riff called "Zombie Nation," played over the loudspeakers, has become an essential engine of noise. A group of students camps out in Paternoville each week for the privilege of occupying the front rows of the students' section. Guided by the subtleties of Guido's marketing campaign (Quoth Don Draper: "It's a carousel!"), they became the controlling influence, so that this weekend, when Iowa comes to town, the Hawkeyes will be greeted by a mob of undignified 18-to-22-year old lunatics, dressed up entirely in white and swaying like drunken sailors*. Kirk Herbstreit has declared that Beaver Stadium now has the best atmophere of any stadium the country, which, even a decade ago, would have been unthinkable. It impacts fans, it impacts players**, it impacts coaches, it impacts recruits; it has as much to do with the turnaround of the program as anything else in school history. Beaver Stadium is now one of the most difficult places to play in America, and I'm still not quite sure how it happened.

*Approximately 1 percent of these people actually will be drunken sailors.
**I am a believer in the rationality of sports, but I also believe that college sports are supremely impacted by by crowd noise and music and the din of environs; call me naive (guilty!), but I do think that it is possible for a group of 21-year-olds to will themselves to victory in certain cases, if the atmosphere is in their favor. And this is reason No. 328 why college football is better than pro football.

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