June 13, 2008
As the Boston Celtics inch closer to winning their first championship since 1986, one of the team’s quirkiest traditions has gained a ton of attention outside of New England. The crowd at Celtics games routinely gets worked into a frenzy for “Dancing Gino,” a bearded disco dancer in a snug Gino Vanelli T-shirt. He’s featured in a clip from a 1970’s episode of “American Bandstand” that plays on the scoreboard when a victory is in hand. It has gotten to the point that fans come to games in “Dancing Gino” attire and bust their own disco moves during the video – even the players have embraced the bizarre ritual. The whole phenomenon was chronicled in The New York Times recently, which made me think about the local squads I’ve rooted for since I was youngster.
When it comes to original sports traditions, we don’t have much to work with in Minnesota. Twins fans throw opponents’ homeruns back onto the field, but that practice was established years earlier by creative Cubs fans in Chicago. We’ve got a couple cute songs in “Skol Vikings” and that “State of Hockey” ditty the Wild’s marketing department worked up. The Timberwolves – I guess people really like the halftime performer that shows up two or three times a year riding a unicycle and flipping bowls onto her head, but I don’t think that counts as a time-tested tradition.
The lack of traditions and uniqueness is definitely not a new revelation to me or others. Heck, in a Star Tribune article from October 12, 2002, columnist Dan Barreiro wrote: “The current sports marketing era favors cookie-cutter homogenization. No matter what ballpark or arena you might be in, if you’ve heard John Belushi do his ‘Animal House’ rallying speech once, you’ve heard it a thousand times – ” Well, now we’ve heard it 10,000 times. Nearly six years have passed since this statement was printed, but it continues to ring true. The Twin Cities’ sports experience – most notably at the Metrodome and Target Center – feels generic, putting a greater emphasis on wins and losses to give the teams an identity. Wins and losses obviously matter, but they should not be the only reason fans want to take in a game.
I joked earlier about the “State of Hockey” song, but the Minnesota Wild have clearly done the best job of building simple traditions, which can have a significant impact on fans, sponsors and team identity. The franchise is still relatively young, but as an example, I’m betting you’ll still be able to join in saying “Let’s Play Hockey” before the puck drops 50 years from now. In addition, the St. Paul Saints have succeeded in this market for years by turning a ballgame into an experience by differentiating from their Major League counterparts. Frankly, it doesn’t really matter to most Saints fans that they are watching mid-level minor league baseball – they go to Midway Stadium for the atmosphere and quirky traditions.
I’m not suggesting teams force things or go over the top (we all agree that Disco Demolition Night was a bad idea for the White Sox), but for the sanity of season ticket holders, it is important to break away from the traditional formula, take more risks and foster an environment where simple traditions can spring up naturally. There’s no time like the present to start. The Vikings are riding the buzz surrounding Adrian Peterson and a great off-season; the Twins and Gophers football are about to move from the soulless Metrodome to fancy new stadiums; and the Wolves certainly could stand to engage fans with something other than the product on the floor.
What’s your favorite Minnesota sports tradition? Got any new ideas to share?