Cults of Consumption: Sox and Jordans

19 May

Before I left Boston, I had one final task: to experience a Red Sox game.  Now, I must admit, I’m not a fan of baseball.  Nor am I a fan of the Red Sox.  I just felt that it would be a crying shame for me to return to my home in Dallas without experiencing the activity of which so many Bostonians proudly partake.

By way of a miracle, aka a friend with connections, I managed to secure tickets to last Wednesday’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays.

When I excitedly told my suitemate, a native Bostonian, of my upcoming plans, she didn’t school me on the rules of the game, or offer insight as to what time to arrive or what things to look out for: She asked if I had any Red Sox items to sport for the occasion.

I am not a Red Sox fan nor am I a fan of baseball.  Why on Earth would I have a Red Sox hat or shirt stowed away in the back of my closet?

But upon her insistence, I rummaged through my wardrobe to search for the sole Babson t-shirt that was modeled after the traditional Red Sox paraphernalia.

No luck.

I settled instead for tying a red scarf around my neck and headed to the T.

On the T, I could identity exactly who would be joining me at Fenway that afternoon.  Men, women and children all sported either a cap or shirt or jacket bearing the insignia of the Sox.

By the time we arrived at the historic Fenway, the T was a sea of blue and red.

It’s as though people thought donning the signs of the team made them better fans.  Just like wearing an American flag makes you more patriotic.

Ahem.

I had never witnessed anything like this before.  Outside the park, music whirred as I entered Red Sox Land.  It was like entering a completely new dimension–street vendors thrusted their wares at each and every passerby, and fans, adorned in the uniform of the masses, poured into the stadium.

I didn’t understand it.  Natives. Foreigners.  College students with no affinity whatsoever to Boston or the team all became accepted avid fans through their purchased attire.  Talk about social currency. Over 90% of the thousands of people within the stadium religiously wore some article of Red Sox clothing, with most wearing multiple items of distinction.

According to Forbes, for every fan, the Boston Red Sox franchise generates an average of $66 per game.  Tickets average $47 per game.  Thus, approximately $19 of each fan’s money per game goes to food, drinks, and Red Sox goods.

How a company or team can create such consumerist norms is beyond me.  One friend, who hails from Cape Cod explain the phenomenon: “It gives you an identity, for a couple of hours anyway.”

It unites people, shows affinity, support, and pride for the team.

The sea of caps, shirts, and jackets bearing the signs of the Red Sox reminded me of a custom quite a world away from Fenway Park.  For in the margins of society, a mysteriously similar display of unity, affinity, support, and pride is rampant—another type of unofficial uniform is dominant.

Back in my hometown in urban Dallas, anyone who seriously balls and/or wants to be considered cool wears Jordans.  It is simply a metric for street cred.  At $160 a pop, these shoes have become the uniform of urban males and a startling number of urban females  across America.

Began by those who, as an expression of reverence and out of the desire to “be like Mike,” donned the shoes in hopes of gaining some of his magic and a bit of his essence, these sneakers are not child’s play.  Not stepping onto the court or the schoolyard with a fresh pair of Js can mean social suicide, just like walking into Fenway in the wrong colors and attire can mean a horrible experience at the legendary park.

The Jordan brand was recently praised for its strength by Advertising Age.  Long after the basketball superstar retired, long after the brand itself gained independence from Nike, long after the rise of several newcomer superstars, the shoes still hold their clout, despite popular wisdom or rational.

And it’s serious business.  People will literally steal and kill to their hands on a pair of these rubber commodities.

And the shoes are not limited to the basketball courts.

Urban babies are prepped from birth to wear the shoes.

My little sister, eighteen-years-old, who has never played a game of pick-up in her life, owns at least five pairs of the pricy shoes.  My best friend owned several.

What intrigues me most is that the largest buyers of these shoes, which range from $100 – $200 are from a demographic segment identified as unprofitable and undesirable by most brands.

Why?

Or perhaps, most importantly, how can other companies ingrain their products or franchises so deeply  into a society that  the products becomes the uniform of a particular group or segment?

Fenway and the Red Sox hold a lot of clout in Boston.  Baseball is deeply entrenched into the culture and a journey to Fenway Park is a tradition and rite of passage for most Bostonians.

In the nooks and crannies of society, basketball is king.  Thus, paying homage to a legendary basketball player and offering oneself a bit of luck and hope through purchasing Jordan’s brand seem sensical.

Both products speak deeply to the inner dreams and aspirations of its wearers.  Those donning Red Sox gear, most anyway, pray to the baseball gods for a good season, discuss last night’s game with coworkers and friends, and watch the game religiously.

Those donning Jordans pray to the basketball gods for a good game.  Many have aspirations of fame and fortune through basketball, while others simply enjoy this social clout and status that come along with each pair.

The common thread seems to be speaking to a community’s shared aspirations.

By identifying what makes people tick, by catering to their deepest dreams, aspirations, and motivations, any company can create a consumerist cult and derive value from a community.

Until next time. . .

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