ONORATO: Marketing a tragedy

The 2013 season of the Boston Red Sox appeared to come straight out of Hollywood; A band of bearded brothers overcomes the odds to become just the second team in history to go from worst to first in the majors. But what’s more, they did it all in a year when their city had sunk to its lowest depths. Just six months after the Boston Marathon bombings, the Red Sox became World Series champions, chanting “Boston Strong” all the way.

The Red Sox are just one example in recent memory of a professional sports team becoming a beacon of hope in the wake of some tragic event in its city. There were the Yankees and Mets of 2001 post 9/11 and the New Orleans Saints in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And now, the Boston-strong Red Sox have become the newest example of a team taking on the identity of a city and its people in the midst of hardship.

As a believer in the power of sports to unite us and teach us lessons beyond the game, I have always taken for granted how professional sports teams should serve this function for a city on the mend. But should this be the case? After all, a professional baseball team is a franchise, a corporation designed to turn a profit. As such, how acceptable is it for a team, whose primary motivation is to make monetary gains, to re-appropriate a tragedy?

In the Red Sox’s case, this re-appropriation has taken many forms, from selling slogan-bearing merchandise to decorating the Green Monster with what the Boston Globe’s Ben Zimmer termed the city’s “post-disaster brand.” The line is thin between rallying a city behind the united idea that “Boston Strong” conveys, and using this slogan as a clever, timely and emotionally salient marketing strategy.

The Boston Red Sox organization has certainly benefited from its connection with the “Boston Strong” slogan and idea, however unquantifiable that benefit might be.

The organization has also made a point to actively contribute to the cause that they have championed. A week after the April bombings, the Red Sox donated $100,000 to the One Fund, a fund set up to benefit the victims of the marathon tragedy. Additionally, proceeds from much of the merchandise sold also contribute to the One Fund, but the Red Sox still received considerable brand recognition.

Major League Baseball and several other organizations matched these contributions, and donations to the One Fund have continued to pour in. However, it should be noted that the Red Sox’s lowest salaried player in the 2013 season, Will Middlebrooks, made five times the amount the Red Sox initially donated. It was only three months later that they signed Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia to a staggering eight-year, $110 million dollar contract. There is no question that the intentions and the impact of the One Fund donation were both positive, but looking at it in context reminds us that, all else considered, the Red Sox remain a franchise designed to turn a profit.

There is perhaps no way to parse out marketing from community outreach in the case of professional sports. After all, brand management and promotion will always occur, whether by design or simply as a natural consequence of the outreach effort. But does that really matter?

This is where my faith in sports steps in, convincing me that teams in a tragedy-stricken city come to represent more than their city in sport, but in spirit, heart, and resilience. It is less about the Red Sox, for example, rallying around the idea of Boston Strong, than it is about the people of Boston rallying around something — anything, really — together. Sports provide that sense of community, a focal point for a city when its world has been turned on its head.

Sports, after all, are nothing more than a narrative. For the Red Sox, this narrative took them from worst to first in the setting of a post-tragedy Boston. For the Saints, it was about rebuilding hope after Katrina, and for the Yankees, it was about making sense of the unbelievable in a post-9/11 world.

In all of these cases, the team has provided consistency, creating narratives of hope and resilience in the face of adversity. Instead of seeing each narrative as the response to a given tragedy, we should perhaps think about the tragedy as just another, equally important part of the narrative itself. “Boston Strong,” then, is also a part of the story, to be viewed less as re-appropriation and more as appreciation of the experiences of the city and its people.

When the duck boats stopped on Boylston Street during the World Series parade, the trophy was placed on the finish line of the Boston marathon. That moment, indisputably, was not about brand promotion, or profit margins, or any sort of re-appropriation of tragedy.

It was about endings, beginnings, and how the Red Sox helped us make sense of it all. It was about knowing where we are and from where we’ve come, and knowing that the bigger narrative of a city will continue on, strong.

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