Throw Back Champs: A Lion King and Devil Rays!

Do you remember when Frank Sinatra, in his senior years, returned to the pop music charts in May 1980 with the Big Apple anthem New York, New York? Or when tennis legend Jimmy Connors, one year away from retirement at the 1991 United States Open, blasted his way into the semi finals against an entire younger generation of opponents?

They were both “throw back” champions of an earlier age, sporting strategies and styles that had not been utilized in years. Sinatra exemplified a bar room style of singing that had long ago yielded to the bouncier formats of rock, disco, and rap music. And Connors embraced a “charge the net” finesse-based approach that had similarly given way to a world of power serves and metallic racquets.

It’s rare to watch a single throw back champion emerge from the pack at any given moment in time; of course, it’s even rarer for two such champions to seize the public’s imagination at the same time. And yet, last week, that’s exactly what occurred across the nation.

Introducing … The Lion King!

Sixteen years have passed since Pixar began to nudge the animated film industry from hand drawn cells to computer generated scenes with the release of Toy Story, its first full length movie. And five years have passed since Disney itself, the venerable pioneer that launched the world’s original full length hand drawn movie in 1938 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfspurchased Pixar for $7.4 billion.

But Disney has always been willing to pursue “throw back” strategies in order to grab the attention of the American consumer. In the 1990s, for instance, it purchased and renovated New York City’s New Amsterdam, a 1903 theatre in what was then a seedy Times Square district; its successful reintroduction helped launch the revitalization of the Big Apple’s theater center. And just two years ago, it released The Princess and the Frog, an old fashioned, full length film set in Jazz Age New Orleans.

Last month, it dusted off its 1994 animated classic The Lion King and re-released it in movie theaters across the nation. To the surprise of industry veterans around the country, it soared past the new Brad Pitt film Moneyball and became the most popular film in mass release in the United States.

The Miracle at Tropicana Field

Meanwhile, last week, baseball fans were marveling at the manner in which a throwback team in a throwback sport completed a historic comeback in a throwback stadium.

The team was the Tampa Bay Rays, named after the devil rays that swim along the western Florida coastline. The Rays are a low budget baseball team in a relatively small American city, playing in a decrepit ballpark that is named after an orange juice company. And the sport of baseball itself, of course, is a Civil War era game that (by certain measures) has fallen behind football in mass popularity.

But last week, the Rays astonished the sports world by rallying from a seven run deficit on its home field to defeat the heavily favored New York Yankees during the final game of the regular season, which propelled it past the wealthy Boston Red Sox in the standings and into the playoffs. Some sports reporters referred to it as the most exciting night in the history of the National Pastime, an event that reminded fans of the ancient charm of a team game that does not embrace electronic clocks or sophisticated equipment.

There Is A Market …

Why have these throw-back events grabbed the attention of American industry? Clearly, they demonstrate that there a market for entertainment pastimes that, at first glance, might be dismissed as relics of earlier eras. Like Charlie Chaplin movies that are featured at contemporary film festivals, and vintage baseball games that are played under nineteenth century rules and regulations, the enduring popularity of these events reminds us of the significant revenue that can be earned from such endeavors.

And when considered in tandem with the low costs of such productions, the net profits generated from such events can be immensely lucrative. After all, the cost of constructing Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field in the late 1980s was $130 million, a tiny fraction of the $1.5 billion price tag of the New Yankee Stadium. And the additional cost of producing The Lion King for distribution last month was literally zero, the film having earned back its production costs during its initial run in the 1990s.

Simba the Lion and Evan Longoria (the third baseman who slammed two critical home runs to propel the Rays to victory), of course, are incredibly talented performers with qualities that cannot be easily discovered or duplicated within other characters or players. Nevertheless, as long as throw back champions continue to attract the attention — and the purchasing power — of American consumers, organizations will doubtlessly continue to try to replicate their magic.