Marketing genius is found in those who take fledgling enterprises and through innovation and customer involvement build hugely successful products. George Preston Marshall was such a marketer.
In 1937, he purchased the old Boston Redskins professional football team and moved the franchise to Washington, DC, renaming it the Washington Redskins. In those days, professional football was more of a curiosity than serious sport. Baseball was the national pastime. Football was something to do on a cold Sunday afternoon with no great import or urgency.
Marshall was a master showman, and he surrounded himself with others who shared his vision. He realized that to build a fan base, he needed to offer more than punts and passes on the field. He needed to offer entertainment, excitement, and enterprise. He began by asking the impertinent question: What can we do to build "traditions" that our fans will take to their hearts, when last year they didn't even have a team to root for?
Through songwriter Barnee Breeskin, the conductor of the orchestra at Washington's Shoreham Hotel, Marshall produced a fight song, the first for a professional football team. Breeskin's opus was originally called the "Washington Redskins March." Today, it is known throughout the United States as "Hail to the Redskins!"
It became the rallying cry as crowds grew from the hundreds to the thousands, singing the song not just in the stadium but also on the streets and in bars and taverns as the popularity of the team grew. It is still a staple of the football franchise, sung by the crowd after every Redskin touchdown and field goal more than 60 years later, a lasting marketing medium.
Marshall also realized that he needed an instrument to capitalize on the new anthem. He collaborated once again with Bree-skin, beginning with Breeskin's swing band and transforming the enterprise into a full-fledged marching band. The Redskins Marching Band became the first in professional football.
In his marketing mind, Marshall realized that this was not just about entertainment. It was also about creating awareness and building attendance. The band became a staple throughout the region, performing not just in the Washington, DC, area but also throughout the South where no competition for professional football franchises existed. The customer/fan base throughout Virginia, the Carolinas, and as far south as Georgia expanded dramatically.
There were times when the musical entertainment was more compelling than the game itself. It is often credited with quadru pling the attendance in the first three years of the team's existence in Washington, DC.
Fabulous pregame and halftime shows drew the crowds more than the team's on-field performance, some suspected. Columnist Bob Considine described it this way: "A Redskins game is something resembling a fast-moving revue, with cues, settings, music, pace, tableaux and, hold your hats, boys, a ballet. The amazing part of it all is that there's room left on the program for a football game!" Marshall was marketing his team as all-encompassing entertainment on a Sunday afternoon, not just a football game. He was drawing families, not just fans. A football game at old Griffith Stadium became an event. Football was just an integral part of the celebration.
Yet another example of Marshall's brilliance in producing stunts and promoting his product was the annual arrival of Santa Claus at the game scheduled just before Christmas. There was nothing new about Santa Claus making an appearance at a game during the holidays. That was done all the time, throughout the country. In Washington, DC, however, it was how Santa arrived that captured the imagination of Marshall's audiences. Each year, speculation began in the newspapers and on radio broadcasts. People bought tickets early to make certain they were among the privileged who personally would witness the arrival of Santa Claus.
Under Marshall's creative guidance, Santa arrived in every way imaginable. Through the years, he has entered the halftime show amid great fanfare by sleigh, by parachute, on horseback, and tethered to a wire strung from the top of the stadium. In more recent years, a helicopter has landed with Santa at midfield, and he has even "materialized" through magical illusions. It remains a staple of the team's tradition and Christmas entertainment.
As with any business, in the professional football industry that Marshall helped create years ago, a few Super Bowls and other successes certainly help sell tickets. But the foundation of any enterprise is the building of brand recognition and a faithful following in good times and bad. George Preston Marshall recognized that football wins and losses would come and go, but entertainment and excitement would attract customers forever.
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