Bill Simmons, the sportswriter turned media magnate (ESPN built the Grantland property for him) was profiled by Rob Tannenbaum in Rolling Stone this week. The piece gets at why the sports world occupies such a permanent and prominent place within pop culture:
No sportswriter has ever had as much success as Simmons, partly because sports is now inseparable from pop culture. Even if you don’t care about football, you know Peyton Manning from his ads for Buick. Or DirecTV. Or Gatorade. By integrating with television, digital media, and Madison Avenue, sports has shifted from a pastime to a conglomerate: according to Forbes, the four major professional leagues are worth a combined $91.2 billion. This makes it harder to care about sports — who roots for Comcast, or Chevron? — but the enthusiasm of Simmons’ columns and podcasts return fans to the spirit of the pre-show-me-the-money era.
ESPN has both enabled this growth and benefitted from it, and is now worth $50.8 billion, making it the most valuable media brand in the world, according to Forbes, with 7 domestic and 24 international TV networks, radio networks, a weekly magazine and websites. That’s a staggering sum for a network that launched in 1979 with a lineup of college soccer, wrestling, and slow-pitch softball.
I think it’s obvious that sports will always be a more popular vertical than business, even though the two share so many commonalities – the competitive drive inherent to both activities, the dramatic stories of victory and defeat, the excitement of witnessing someone new succeed, etc. I would guess that sports maintains its mindshare lead over business simply because of how much easier it is for casual engagement and understanding. We learn to play sports as toddlers in this country and we can therefore get our cognitive bearings within moments of turning on a game on TV. We also require very little background or experiential depth to evaluate the quality of a live event; you’re either enjoying the spectating of a game or you’re not. Business and investing are not so immediately and simply consumed by just anyone.
This is why there’s nothing even remotely comparable to ESPN in the financial realm. Sure, we have three business TV networks (for now), hundreds of websites and publications – but they’re rarely consumed by a mass audience.
And there are almost zero crossover stars from the business world in the mainstream popular consciousness. There’s Trump and Buffett and Cramer and maybe Mark Cuban but that’s really it. Pop culture knows the name Madoff but for all the wrong reasons. Our famous hedge fund managers – even Carl Icahn or George Soros – could probably walk through the halls of any major airport or shopping mall in this country and be completely unmolested. Can’t say the same thing about any athlete who’s achieved the same level of success and longevity in whatever his or her sport is.
Part of this has to be because sports stars are, on average, younger and much better looking than financial stars. But that obvious fact cannot wholly explain the phenomenon, can it?
More interestingly, off the top of my head I can’t think of a single famous trader, investor or market personality with their own endorsement deal. Which is insane when you think about – stars from every other vertical have advertisers clamoring for their products to be used and shown off. Why does this fervor not carry over to rich, successful investors?
Is it a lack of interest? Is there no hedge fund hotshot who’d want be sponsored by Calloway Golf or American Express? Is there no investment banking mogul who’d be proud to appear in a shirt ad for Brooks Brothers? What about luxury automobiles? Jim Chanos for Range Rover? David Einhorn for Ralph Lauren?
And if these marketing relationships did come about, wouldn’t young, aspirational investors and financial professionals flock to these brands upon seeing their idols associated with them?
Now you’re probably going to respond, “But Josh, Wall Street superstars are already loaded – they don’t need the money!” Okay, but does Tiger? Does Tom Brady? LeBron? Is there that big of a chasm between being worth a billion and being worth a hundred million?
You may also be thinking, “Brands are probably too worried about reputational risk should a financier turn out to be involved in a scandal.” Right, because pro athletes are paragons of virtue and not at all susceptible to vice and scandal off the field.
I’m not sure I can exactly put my finger on why business barely occupies any place in pop culture or why the rockstars of finance aren’t being pursued by advertisers who want to reach luxury consumers. What do you think?