Theory Teacher's Blog

Immaterial Bowl Games

I have to admit, I’ve never been a “fan” of sports. I’ve always liked playing sports quite a bit, and I like watching some sports (football, basketball, and tennis are my favorites), but even as a kid I never cared enough to keep track of a team’s performance, a star athlete’s digits, or whatever. However, recently I have to wonder whether even the die-hard sports fanatics are questioning the proliferation of college bowl games. EagleBank Bowl? Little Caesars Pizza Bowl? Sports commentators joke about “toilet bowls” — their term for bowl games whose significance is laughable. But whatever the debates among sports commentators about the pageantry of bowl games and how we decide the number one team of the year, all this seems less interesting to me than the names of the bowl games, the changing nature of sponsorship, and what this suggests to me about the changing nature of our economy. My hypothesis is that the rise of immaterial bowl games reflects the rise of immaterial labor — note the pun.

For example, this morning I just watched the Capital One Bowl, which used to be called the Florida Citrus Bowl. As everyone knows, Florida’s economy, because of its climate, is based largely on citrus fruits. And as everyone knows, Capital One is one of the largest credit card companies (a.k.a. “consumer lending”). What people may not know is that Capital One was created as recently as 1988, and in the short span of a decade became a powerful enough company to sponsor one of the premiere bowl games. So what? What’s the difference? Well, the difference is a shift from a bowl named after an agricultural crop to a bowl named after a credit card. And this shift seems symptomatic of a larger economic shift from an economy based on efficient commodity production to an economy based on services.

The earlier economy is what (almost a century ago) theorist Antonio Gramsci called a “Fordist” economy after the innovations of Ford Motors, and today our economy based on financial services is sometimes referred to as a “post-Fordist” economy. Building upon the concept of “post-Fordism,” theorists Negri and Hardt made a big splash in 2000 with their book Empire that argued (among other things) that there has been a shift from material to immaterial labor. This “shift” does not mean that the production of actual material things is no longer important. Of course it still is. Rather, it means that services such as credit, finance, health care, etc. have become the hegemonic form of production that dominates. Think back to the 19th century during the “industrial revolution” when economists claimed that industrial production — i.e., the factory — had become the most important form of production. At the time, however, when people were first noticing this change in the makeup of their world, factories represented a relatively small amount of the economy. Most of the economy was still rural farms. Analogously, today is the same deal. While the economy may still be about commodities (food, clothes, cars, toys, etc.), the form that is emerging as a dominant form is immaterial. For example, as most car companies are well aware, they don’t make much profit off the production of automobiles. The real profit is in their financial services, insurance, and other services.

And so, in college football, we don’t have a General Motors bowl, Ford bowl, or Toyota bowl. Rather, since 1999 (the year before Negri and Hardt’s book was published), we have a GMAC Bowl — GMAC basically being the bank that provides financial services for General Motors. And following this trend towards immaterial global capitalism, some of the most recent additions to college football include the EagleBank Bowl, Meineke Car Care Bowl, Humanitarian Bowl, and International Bowl. I’m surprised there isn’t a bowl named after a health insurance company. In the near future, will there be a bowl game named after an unregulated hedge fund?

I’d be curious if someone has ever written a “cultural studies” history of the bowl game. What might that history look like? The first bowl game was the Rose Bowl begun way back in 1902 to celebrate East-West rivalry. This bowl was symptomatic of the rise of California as an economic power after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Most of the other major bowl games emerged during the Great Depression or right after World War II — Orange Bowl (1935), Sugar Bowl (1935), Cotton Bowl (1937), Gator Bowl (1946), Citrus Bowl (1947). One might speculate about why bowl games were created during the devastation of the Great Depression and (ironically) the Dust Bowl. My guess is bread and circus for the poor and a nice patriotic stimulus to the economy. Obviously, the names of these bowls all suggest the warm climate in which they are located, since nobody wants to play a bowl game in the snow, and that’s why there aren’t bowl games reflecting the identities of northern climates (e.g., corn, wheat, and steel bowls), though it doesn’t explain why there isn’t a rice or indigo bowl. (South Carolina missed an opportunity there.) Significantly, for the point of my blog, the names of bowls generally tend to suggest the agricultural product associated with that climate.

By the 1960s, this was no longer the case. Certainly, the invention of television had something to do with the rising importance of bowl games, and so we have more TV-oriented names such as the Liberty Bowl (1959), Fiesta Bowl (1971), Holiday Bowl (1978), and Hall of Fame Bowl (1986).

If the 1960s was about television, the post-1990 era is about globalization, immaterial labor, and life-style branding, so we have the creation of the Chick-Fil-A Bowl (formerly the Peach Bowl), Champs Bowl (formerly the Tangerine Bowl),  Outback Bowl (formerly the Hall of Fame Bowl), PapaJohns.com Bowl, and Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl. Noticeably all of these are named after popular brands of food services rather than actual food. In addition to the food services bowls, credit card bowl, and the Meineke Car Care Bowl mentioned above, there is also the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas (another car services company) and the Insight Bowl (information technology services.) In other words, the shift is from things to services — what Negri and Hardt conceptualize as the shift to immaterial labor. In addition, I think we can see evidence of what Naomi Klein famously argued in her book No Logo (published in 2000), that the 1990s saw the rise of the “brand.” In other words, agreeing with Negri and Hardt’s thesis about immaterial labor, what Klein notices is the rise of branding and life-style management alongside the outsourcing of industrial production to third-world nations.

But so what? Is this a bad thing? That’s a question for another day, and I don’t know enough about the sports world, because as I mentioned earlier, I don’t really care about it. But as many sports commentators have lamented on ESPN (which I have to watch when I use the gym at my school), the changes in corporate sponsorship have created a cultural dynamic that is bad for players, bad for coaches, and bad for fans. In sum, from what I gather from listening intermittently to the ESPN sports commentators, it has made the game worse, not better. But how were bowl games sponsored before? Who was in control and who is in control now? I don’t know, which is why I really think somebody should write a theoretically and economically informed “Cultural History of the Bowl Game.”

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January 2, 2010 - Posted by | finance, global, media, sports

4 Comments »

  1. i’m not a “fan” of corporate hegemony.

    Comment by poopinwalmart | January 3, 2010 | Reply

    • Good for you Poppinwalmart. I’m not either, but your self-promoting comment is not interesting.

      Comment by steventhomas | January 3, 2010 | Reply

  2. I think there’s probably a couple of either factors to consider too–for example, the corporate sponsorship of bowl games also shows that corporations are increasingly pushed to invest sponsorship money in events and experiences–which is to say that branding increasingly has little to do with what the company actually does. Likewise, the amount of money associated with bowl games has increased exponentially–to the point where traditionally “non-bowl” teams have slowly but surely been roped into the spectacle. Nor do I use the term “spectacle” lightly–it seems like Debord may be right when he says that the spectacle is itself the image of consumption. So yeah, I guess I’d agree that the dot com sponsored bowl game is more the image (or event) of consumption than older agricultural bowls ever were. (Written while watching the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, which I guess we could think of as the corn bowl if we imagine really hard).

    Comment by Stephen | January 5, 2010 | Reply

    • Shouldn’t Boise State be winning a potato chip bowl and not the Tostitos corn chip bowl? (And Texas Christian the oil bowl?) Sorry, Stephen, bad joke, but seriously, why isn’t there any oil bowl? Anyway, I totally agree with your point about Guy Dubord’s book Society of the Spectacle. The bowls do reproduce the image of consumption, and do so quite literally with symbols of food — I neglected to mention the Emerald nuts bowl — but also structurally as you point out, so that our “human” relations are mediated by images of consumption and possession. And this might explain why certain images are chosen rather than others (e.g., Tostitos corn chips and sugar rather than Exxon oil), though I’m not sure Debord’s theory does enough to explain why one image rather than another at a specific time (1990s rather than 1930s) or a specific situation (bowl games rather than tennis matches.)

      I’m wondering if this kind of spectacle hasn’t reached a point of over-saturation, a point at which the bowls become meaningless. Perhaps this is why they had to create the new BCS championship system in 1998 — to give the bowl games the meaning that they had lost. But perhaps meaning doesn’t matter, and I suppose part of Debord’s point is precisely that it no longer matters if the bowl games actually “mean” anything (i.e., if the representation actually represents the thing.) Though it does mean something to the fans.

      And sponsorship is such an interesting, complicated thing, certainly with its good effects as well as bad. Naomi Klein talks about how corporate sponsorship is displacing public infrastructure and how sponsorship is a way of a corporation to whitewash its public image. But one has to admit that a lot of good can come out of some things that corporations sponsor (and bowl games are really a lot of fun, of course, so what’s wrong with that?) I’d be curious, though, going deeper than Klein does, about how sponsorship is tied into the complicated interconnectedness of the private and public sectors below the surface.

      Comment by steventhomas | January 5, 2010 | Reply


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