We forgot to celebrate one of the biggest sports public relations days in history this week, and some of the lessons learned.
On August 8, 1988, the Chicago Cubs were turning on the lights for the first night game in the history of Wrigley Field. This was a huge sports event because the Cubs were the last team to play games exclusively during the day in Major League Baseball. This was an end of an era to some extent. Night baseball had crept into the sport in the 1930s, grew over the decades, and then it was pretty much goodbye day games once the World Series became a primetime affair in the 1970s. So, the Cubs were the last to go down and it was a big story.
And it was a story the Cubs public relations team needed. Despite having six All Stars on their roster, the team was heading for a fifth place finish in the old NL East. A historic night game was just was the public relations team needed, and they gave an A+ effort. That had comedian Bill Murray help introduce the game with the legendary Harry Carey. They had former Cy Young winner Rick Sutcliffe (and the team’s ace pitcher) start the game. Through some luck, they were playing the Philadelphia Phillies – one of the few teams worse than the Cubs that year so it was almost a football homecoming game. They had a packed house. They got 91-year-old fan Harry Grossman to announce “Let There Be Light” and flip the switch. It was a great plan, and one the Cubs PR team rightfully believed would get them around the clock television coverage, stories on the front page of every newspaper and probably the cover of magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Time that week.
But as any PR person will tell you. Things don’t go always as planned. Unforeseen things happen. In Complete PR’s little world, we know we are at the whims of breaking news. The Cubs? Well, they faced something much worse.
Rain ended the game early so all of those happy revelers went home when the game was cancelled (with the Cubs winning, by the way) in the fourth inning. For all the hype, the first night game officially didn’t count as a real game under the rules of baseball.
Ok, dust yourself off and have the first official night game tomorrow, on August 9. Won’t be as exciting, but you had the hoopla on August 8th and hopefully it would create a lot of good press. That had to be the thinking in the Cubs PR department. Unfortunately for the Cubs PR team, another storm was brewing two time zones over in Canada.
The current NHL champions Edmonton Oilers had called for a press conference the next morning. Around the same time, the Los Angeles Kings called all the major media to say they were having a press event that afternoon. Huh? Two hockey teams making major announcements in late summer. Wait, what? There had been whispers and stories that the best team in hockey, Oilers, were about to trade Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest player in the history of the sport and easily the biggest offensive threat ever seen. Many had shrugged it off as idle chatter. Dumb speculation.
On August 9, the speculation turned real. Gretzky had been traded to the Kings. In a succinct press conference in Edmonton, Gretzky began crying as he realized the ramifications — the history of the NHL was changed forever.
And somewhere in Chicago we can’t help but wonder if some of the Cubs’ PR team began to cry realizing their brilliantly planned public relations plan was being swept aside by a press conference. The Gretzky story was THE media story of the week.
It’s a great lesson in public relations – no matter what you do, sometimes a bigger story will take the lead.