A fan's observations on the Washington Nationals, from across the virtual divide.

Teddy: A Sign of the Times

Marketing has never been a particular strong suit for the Nationals, but The Rushmores, also known as the “Racing Presidents” were an instant success back when they were introduced in 2006. When it comes to fan entertainment at baseball games, the mid-game mascot race, whether you’re talking about variety meats, dinner pastry or presidents, is not particularly new. In a town where national monuments are part of the social fabric, The Rushmores are a perfect match for Washington.

Back when I was in college, one of the first big projects I worked on in communication was a criticism project where we listened to the stories of the employees, and made sense of their narrative using something called Fantasy Theme Analysis. The idea here is that when you talk to people in an organization, they recount their stories using metaphor, as a way to add depth to the example. For instance, an employee might talk about always putting out fires – an indication that someone in the organization is always first to step up, be the hero, but in a reactive way. He or she is responding to crises, rather than showing strategic leadership. Pick your fairy tale or two, and there’s an organization that matches it – whether you’re talking about nurturing parents, authoritarian ship captains or calculating villains. The story-teller uses these metaphors as a way to describe the context in which he or she understands their organization’s culture.

If you were to ask a long-time Washingtonian about the history of sports in the city, it would be the tale of institutionalized, long-term mediocrity. The Senators have their World Series in 1924, but when people talk about it, the narrative is more about how exceptional that event was – Washington’s only World Series. Damn Yankees is the literary parable that memorializes the lovable loser. The Washington Generals are the perpetual foil of the Harlem Globetrotters. The Washington Capitals are holders of numerous milestones of mediocrity, including the worst regular season record ever, and no Stanley Cup Championships in their thirty-five year history. Even the Redskins, with three Super Bowl wins and two NFL championships  in their history, have become more about the hype and preparation, and less about winning. I would even suggest that the Redskins get more and better media exposure when they lose than when they win; a disincentive to winning for a team that is so successful in its merchandising.

Despite our history and culture, Washingtonians certainly have an appetite for winning teams. When the Nats made their improbable run in the first half of 2005, RFK was packed every game. The Caps recent success has filled The Phone Booth. The Redskins sellouts of today were built on “The Future Is Now” philosophy of George Allen. But Washingtonian sports culture has an excuse and tolerance for losing, to the point of accepting it as destiny.

Culture doesn’t change overnight, and it often takes generations. But while mediocrity might feel like destiny, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Joe Gibbs proved that (the first time).

Fairy tales are morality plays we use to teach our values. Which brings me back to Teddy. The Rushmores are the Nats’ fairy tale. They would be cute, even if all of the presidents won from time to time. But the current narrative, where Teddy loses every race, resonates with us because Teddy has become a metaphor for the Nationals. We see ourselves as Washington sports fans in the results of every race. The narrative is protected and continued because there’s a sense that if Teddy were to win, the joke would be over, and if the joke is over, what does that mean for Teddy and the other presidents - and what does it mean for the Nats? The problem is, every time Teddy loses, he reinforces the stereotype of Washington sports as the laughing stock of the nation.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating that we “Let Teddy Win.” It isn’t as simple as staging a win for Teddy, and suddenly the Nationals fortunes will be reversed. What I am suggesting is that we reject the mindset that it is acceptable that Teddy lose every race. In a world where we stop placing value in the Washington sports stereotype, the perpetual loser Teddy ceases to be the compelling character that he is.

I’ve been to nine Nationals games this season. Teddy has lost all nine of those Presidents Races. The Nats have lost eight of those game. Coincidence? Perhaps… but less than you might imagine.

If we start thinking about Sports in Washington, and the Presidents Race differently, is that the end of the joke? Perhaps. But what it needs to be is the end of the Washington Senators, and Washington sports in general, as the iconic model of what the Nationals should be.

So the catchphrase shouldn’t be “Let Teddy Win.”

It should be “Free Teddy. Free the Nationals.”

Sloopy… (er, Sloppy)

Filed under: Fan Experience,Organization — Tags: , , , — Wigi @ 2:50 pm May 26, 2009

A big part of being an organizational communication consultant is about reading between the lines. It isn’t about what people say or write, but rather, about what they do. The assumption here is that the culture of an organization will emphasize the values that are important to it, and reward people for furthering those values, and de-emphasize those actions that are not important, or even contrary to their values. By watching what an organization does (and paying less attention to what it says), you learn what the organization values.

I recently wrote a piece called The Font of Accountability, where I suggested that the quality of Nationals play on the field was indicative of the organizational culture as a whole. While I stand by my speculation, I admit there is a certain danger in it all, because a baseball team has many organizational arms, and it is the one that is on the field that is most visible. So, it might be a bit if a stretch to say that the entire organization is sloppy, just because the on-the-field team is sloppy.

So imagine my lack of surprise when I read this piece in Dan Steinberg’s D. C. Sports Bog about how the Teddy Roosevelt bobbleheads being sold in the team store are labeled ‘Teddy Rossevelt’. [sic]

Don’t get me wrong. As organizational sins go, this is almost insignificantly small – except that of all the things the Nationals marketing department has done since the Lerners took over, the Rushmores (the Racing Presidents) are probably one of the few unabashed successes. Add to that the fact that Teddy’s losing streak has become a metaphor for Nationals baseball, and you’ll see that Teddy Roosevelt has become an integral part of the Nationals brand. And unlike most of the products that are sold in the team store, which is apparel – whose manufacture and quality control  is conducted by national (or global) brands, such as Antigua, New Era or Majestic, the bobbleheads appear to be team-specific items. Presumably the Nationals stated the specifications for the product, approved the packaging copy, accepted the product (after inspection), and stocked it on the team store shelves. It is probably safe to assume that the Nats had numerous opportunities to insure the quality of the product… and in this case, the packaging. Somehow the error got through the quality checks.

Some of you will correctly point out that even Majestic makes mistakes, shipping jerseys to the Nats with the team name mis-spelled: ‘Natinals’. Very true. But, the Nats have some culpability here, too – they accepted the jerseys and sent their players on the field with them.

No process is perfect. Mistakes are made. In many organizations, the mistakes are caught and rectified. In some organizations, people fail to be accountable to their processes and the organization, and the processes fail. In some organizations, the processes just aren’t that rigorous, because there is no demand that they be.

In the case of the Nats, I am not sure what exactly is going on. But the Nationals have  reached the point where isolated instances are no longer isolated. Whether you’re talking about misspelled packaging on a product in the team store, or team jerseys, or errors or tentative pitching, or interminably long losing streaks or blowing leads in the ninth inning, or corruption in your overseas baseball academies… one or two.. or even three of these constitute isolated instances. But they don’t all happen to one organization, unless there is something about the organization that allows them to happen. What conclusion should we draw from that?

In fairness to the Nationals, my two most recent posts have suggested that at least where the on-the-field product is concerned, there seems to be considerable improvement in the areas that I have found most troubling – relief pitching and fielding. As I pointed out in my post from earlier this morning, Manny Acta’s team meeting last Thursday seems to have made some difference. Additionally, when organizations make a concerted effort to change – for example, to embrace excellence and accountability as core organizational values, change does not happen overnight. It takes weeks or months, and perhaps years. It isn’t like throwing a switch, it is like turning around a ship. There is a lot of momentum carrying the ship in one direction, and it takes time and effort to point it on the proper course. So it may be that ‘Teddy Rossevelt’ is a vestige of the old way. It may be more of the same. It is too early to tell.

It isn’t for me to tell the Nationals what their core organizational values should be. And they’re not in danger of losing me as a fan – I followed the Senators as a kid, and if I can follow them, I can certainly follow the Nats. But here is the red flag for the Nats: I am the ninety-ninth percentile fan, and there are a lot of people who are a lot less committed to the Nationals than I am, and I believe they’re losing faith in the brand. All of these little miscues, whether on the field, in the media, in the team store, isolated by themselves, are nothing. But a brand is not discrete pieces, it is the umbrella under which everything resides. You can’t look at the miscues in isolation, especially when they pop up everywhere you look. Consumers may not ask themselves explicitly what it is that the Nationals stand for. But consumers make choices, and the reputation of that brand figures in the calculus.

It is time for the Nationals to ask themselves, “What do we stand for?”