This Little League Game Brought To You By Corporate Sociopaths
In 1999, the book No Logo by Naomi Klein was published. It was about the infiltration of advertising, marketing and branding in everyday life. In 1999, the internet was just getting started and who could have predicted the spam, pop-up ads, spyware, and algorithmic manipulations that we are exposed to these days. Nonetheless, the book is just as relevant as ever and I highly recommend it.
Klein wrote: “Four years ago, when I started writing this book, my hypothesis was mostly based on a hunch. I had been doing some research on university campuses and had begun to notice that many students I was meeting were preoccupied with the inroads private corporations were making into their public schools. They were angry that ads were creeping into cafeterias, common rooms, even washrooms; that their schools were diving into exclusive distribution deals with soft-drink companies and computer manufacturers, and that academic studies were starting to look more and more like market research.”
Her hunch was correct and so was Orwell’s (1984), Huxley’s (Brave New World) and Judge’s (Idiocracy). I think about this when I pump gas at Kwik Trip and the annoying GSTV automatically plays. I always press mute (right side, middle button). One cannot be allowed to have a quiet moment. Even during the mundane act of pumping gas, your mind is bombarded with branding and messaging and advertising.
In 2015, there was a political rumor and rumble about Governor Scott Walker “selling off” Wisconsin’s state parks. Actually, they were not selling the parks but rather exploring different funding options, including sponsorships, concessions and naming rights. “At best, what is up for discussion is the potential sale of naming rights as a way to derive extra revenue for the parks,” concluded James B Nelson at Politifact.
Think about that for a moment: Yellowstone sponsored by Wrangler. The Grand Canyon sponsored by Taco Bell. Or in my neck of the woods, Roche-A-Cri State Park brought to you by Citgo.
All of those places are treasured landmarks and beloved destinations and to bring in corporate branding and advertising and naming rights would tarnish them in a repulsive way.
Yet our sports stadiums are also treasured landmarks and beloved destinations and they have been sold out to corporate interests a long time ago. Team owners can make that decision and they do. It’s the easiest money they ever made. However, Petco Park simply doesn’t have the same sound and feel of Camden Yards or Candlestick Park or Fenway Park.
This is what I’ve been mulling over this past year when Miller Park was renamed American Family Field. As a beer brewer, having the stadium called Miller Park made perfect sense and the naming rights did not seem intrusive at all. The Brewers as a team were named as an acknowledgment of Milwaukee’s beer brewing history. Having the new stadium named Miller Park made perfect sense and American Family Field does not. They are the Milwaukee Brewers, not the Milwaukee Insurance Agents.
But it is of no surprise that American Family Insurance would make this move as they have a track record of vampire advertising in Wisconsin sports. Like a lamprey that attaches itself to a salmon, American Family Insurance awkwardly attaches its brand into Wisconsin’s sporting scene and they spend vast amounts of cash to do it. They are like a loser rich kid that doesn’t fit in and has to buy people’s attention and worm their way into everything cool.
I discovered this when I was writing for The New York Times. I wanted to write about a decades-old tradition that takes place at the Green Bay Packer summer training camp. Kids line up outside Lambeau Field and when the players emerge to go to the practice field, the kids offer their bikes to the players to ride over and they jog along. That’s it. A simple gesture and tradition between a kid and a professional football player. And then I learned that this childhood scene of summer was now sponsored by American Family Insurance. When I first learned of it, I thought, “You’ve got to be shitting me. They can’t even leave this alone.”
In the end, the story got bumped and by the time some slots opened up in the sports pages, football’s summer training camps were over. The piece never ran in the Times and this story has never been published before until now:
GREEN BAY, Wisc. – They call themselves permanent riders. For one month of every summer, a core group of 30 kids maintain a Packer tradition at Lambeau Field that is old as the days of Vince Lombardi. Decades ago during a summer training camp, some kids offered their bikes for players to ride over to the practice field. They would jog alongside and carry their helmets. The kids made friends with their football heroes and the players started their day with a playful bike ride.
The permanent riders are local kids in the Green Bay area that ask players to be their permanent bike rider for the duration of training camp, in that when the player walks out the gate to the practice field, they will pick them and their bike every time from the swarm of other kids, many of which are from out of town or out of state. Some players agree and a friendly bond is formed.
“You want to get here the first day so you can get someone,” said Ethan Sauer, 13, who is the permanent rider of wide receiver Alex Gillet.
Ben Rambo, 13, is the permanent rider for linebacker Andy Mulumbo. “He came over to my house and he signed my jersey,” said Ben. “For me last year, I came here the first day and I raised my hand he picked me and I asked him to be my rider. So then I got him this year again, too, because he always came over.”
Their friend Kaden Appleton, 13, is currently rider-less. He is the permanent rider for offensive tackle and guard Don Barclay who hurt his knee in the early days of training camp.
“As soon as they know about Donny—because we’re really close with their family—his wife is going to text my mom,” said Kaden. “We’re hoping it’s not an ACL tear but they think that’s going to be it. His wife and kids and dog were at our house during his MRI.”
It is his third year riding with Barclay. “We’ve gotten really to be close to him. My first year we had them over for dinner,” he said.
Despite being described on the Green Bay Packer website as “one of the most intimate traditions in all of sports,” it is now for the first time in the history of this tradition, of all things, a corporate-sponsored event.
American Family Insurance named the 330-yard route from Lambeau Field to Ray Nitschke Field as DreamDrive and opened it with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Draped over the crowd-control fencing are vinyl banners with DreamDrive and Packer logos, along with mounted with upright flags with the American Family Insurance logos. Spray painted on the pavement with a stencil is #DREAMDRIVE encouraging people to tweet about the commercialized spectacle.
During the first week of training camp there was the American Family Insurance DreamZone, an activity area with games and promotions. The insurance company also provided the Dream Fleet, five adult-sized tricycles with a seat large enough to a player and a kid. Underprivileged children or children with disabilities are handpicked by local charity groups such as the Salvation Army to ride these bikes along with a player.
“I think it’s pretty stupid,” said Rambo.
“But it’s for handicapped people, said one permanent rider.
“Not all the time,” other permanent riders chimed in.
“The security guards are all freakish about little kids not getting riders but then they put those big bikes up there and sometimes there are not anything wrong with the kids. They are just normal kids,” said Rambo.
“Yeah, they’re fine. I think it should be just for handicapped people. One time I saw the kids on the big bikes and then I saw them after they got someone and they took their [own] bikes and were just riding around. I didn’t think that’s fair,” said Sauer.
According to American Family Insurance, the DreamDrive and the Dream Fleet fits in line with the corporate branding of “Your dream is out there. Go get it. We’ll protect it.”
“In this case with the bike riding tradition between the packers and the local kids from the Green Bay area, our intention is not to commercialize it at all,” said Anne Norman, the strategic brand marketing manager for American Family Insurance in a telephone interview. “We actually feel it is a very good fit between what our brands are, as the champion of dreams and providing really rich experiences and connecting dreamers and kids to their heroes and to dream champions that inspire them to go out and pursue their dreams.”
Oblivious to the marketing of a corporation that sells a financial product they could care less about, the permanent riders live a Huck Finn-like existence with minimal adult supervision, although Kaden’s mother did stop by to drop off a few boxes of donuts for them.
They arrive hours early, with some of them getting dropped off as their parents go work and picked up on the way home. Some pedal over from their nearby homes. They have hours to kill and the parking lot of Lambeau Field is their playground for one month every summer. They play catch with a tennis balls and footballs. They form a basecamp on the patio of the Tundra Tailgate Zone, a tent-topped sports bar where the shade is cool and the outdoor carpeting is soft. They play cards, wrestle, swap snacks and trade gossip.
As the time nears for the players to emerge from the locker room, more out-of-town kids show up along with their parents. Hundreds of tourists line line-up against the fencing. The permanent riders head to their bikes and get ready.
One man approached Hayden Kupsh, 14, “Does Jordy Nelson ride your bike?”
She nodded apprehensively.
“Can you get me something signed today? I’ll pay you money.”
Hayden shook her head and turned her back on the man. She later said autograph beggars are common.
As more Packers passed through the gate and picked a lucky kid or teamed with their permanent rider, other Packers volunteered to ride with a prearranged kid on a Dream Fleet bike festooned with American Family Insurance logos. Fans, two-people deep along the fenced route whooped as the players pedaled by.
Sue Wiedenmann stood against the fencing with a camera, looking for her six-year old son Henry amongst the tangle of kids and bikes. A Milwaukee native, she and her family live in Los Angles and were visiting.
“I’ve always been a Packer fan so I recruited my husband and son to be Packer fans as well. I know once he sees these guys come out, he’ll be like wow!”
The permanent riders are generous with their insider knowledge as they have a player locked into ride their bike. For other kids from out-of-town, they give tips on how to get picked and let them squeeze into a prime spot in the line-up of bikes.
One permanent rider befriended Henry and let him borrow her bike in order to lend to guard Lane Taylor. Henry carried his helmet and she rollerbladed next to them. Ms. Wiedenmann snapped a rapid-fire string of photos with a DSLR camera, capturing this special moment with unavoidable American Family Insurance logos in the background.
Although corporate America has tried to insinuate itself between the bonds of players and their young fans, the permanent riders are quick to turn the tables and exploit all of the marketing that comes their way.
Earlier this summer there were other promotions by Chevrolet, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Verizon and Kemps, the ice cream maker; and the permanent riders scored free food, swag and amusements. At the promotional tents set up by Chili’s, the Mexican restaurant chain, free snow cones were passed out and permanent riders sneaked back into line for second and third helpings.
“Watch this!” said David Cruz, 15, a permanent rider for defensive end Datone Jones. In front of him was a dunk tank with a man suspended over the water and wearing a Chicago Bears jersey.
He turned to a friend, “Hold my snow cone,” and snatched a football from a Chili’s attendant. He threw a tight spiral and drilled the bulls-eye, plunging the rube underwater with a splash.
At a nearby tent, Alsum, a Wisconsin potato growing group, offered wholesome baked potatoes as samples but the permanent riders were more interested in playing a spin-the-wheel game to snag a free mini football.
“It’s a good way to spend summer,” said Zion Estano, 13, who is the permanent rider for defensive tackle Mike Daniels. Her friend Chayse Earney, 13, is the permanent rider for safety Morgan Burnett.
From hanging out at Lambeau Field, they got to know Madison Vandevelde, 13, the permanent rider for Eddie Lacy. She has been doing this for eight years and has loaned her bike to Desmond Bishop, Greg Jennings, Jarrett Bush and other players. Her mom drops her off every morning.
Without this permanent rider tradition, the three would have never met and become friends. For them, the end of training camp is the start of a new school year and many of the permanent riders go to different schools. Most likely they won’t see each other until next summer but they all agreed they will be back with their bikes—with or without corporate sponsors.