Football Unitarians?

According to this press release, the Unitarian Universalists have decided to advertise their religion within the pages of programs sold at college football bowl games this season. I admire the optimism behind this ad campaign, but this strikes me as an even bigger exercise in futility than sending 19 year olds door to door.

I’m trying to imagine the circumstances under which followers of the Crimson Tide and the Cornhuskers would want to know more about the religion of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Football fans are people who travel hundreds of miles to a bowl game, and who spend thousands of dollars on game tickets, hotels, meals, and bar tabs.  They take their shirts off in freezing weather and paint their chests and faces with the school colors.  They put ridiculous plastic pig noses on their faces while shouting “Sooooeeee!” as their beloved Razorback hogs move the ball downfield.  If the hogs are not moving the ball down the field, they shout profanity instead.  Unless it is the referee’s fault, then they will shout profanity at him.  Do the suits at UU really think that the field is white, already to harvest among folks who enjoy watching large scholar-athletes knock one another to the ground in a game of tackle?

Here is what the UUA president, the reverend Rev. William G. Sinkford, said:

“This opportunity was simply too good to pass up. We’ve said for years that we want to be in the center of the conversation rather than on the margins. In our nation, there are few things closer to the center than holiday football games.”

The idea is unexpected, and crazy enough that it might work. It reminds me of a classic misdirection play, where the offensive line blocks in one direction, deceiving the defense just long enough for the ball carrier to sprint around the end in the opposite direction.

There really is a lot to be said for breaking down stereotypes and broadening our appeal. “The gospel net gathereth of every kind”, and perhaps we Mormons could benefit from a missionary effort which was directed at groups of people we haven’t approached before. Gordon B. Hinckley has said that new converts are the lifeblood of the church, so we must continually find ways to attract and befriend new members. Sooner or later we will run out of people who already look and act like us, so we’ll need to expand our definition of a golden investigator. If the UUs can troll for converts at football games, we can certainly identify ways to make the restored gospel meaningful and appealing to people who have so far not been interested.

Come to think of it, during this football bowl season, when the big game is over and their team has lost, at least half the people in the stands will be in despair, wondering if there really is a God.  Maybe the seeds won’t fall on stony ground, after all.


  1. Eric Russell says:

    But who actually reads the programs?

  2. When I was in Italy on my mission, Roberto Baggio was a soccer superstar. He was also a Buddhist. I remember during an exciting match where Baggio had done something superstarish that some beer bellied fellow stepped away from his TV, jumped out onto the balcony of his apt and yelled essentially, “Yay Buddha!” I suspect this soccer fan never actually made any effort to become Buddhist.

    It actually seems like the “business culture” of US society is permeating religion.

    Boss-type: “We need to market our message people! Where can we get the most eyes on an ad proclaiming our group?”

    Underling 1: “The Superbowl?”

    Boss-type: “We can’t afford an ad for that.”

    Underling 2: “Yeah, I don’t like pro-football anyway. I like college football better”

    Boss-type: “Maybe we can get an ad in the program for one of the college bowl games.”

    Boss-type: “Hey Bob, don’t you know someone at Nebraska in the athletic director’s office?”

    Bob: “Yup, I’ll see what I can do.”

    >days pass<

    Bob: “Good news, we can get an ad for a great price!”

    Boss-type: “That is a great price, let’s do it”

    Underling: “No one reads the programs”

    Boss-type: “But it’s a great price and think of the national exposure”

    Ultimately, the problem of connecting to people about religion means approaching them when the time is right. I believe that’s why member missionary work is more effective than cold-calling (street contacting and door knocking or trying to chat someone up at the bowl game). Context matters.

    I suppose there might be a significant other along to the bowl game because s/he wanted to show relationship unity, but didn’t want to be there who will thumb through the program.

    When was the last time you followed up on an ad you saw in print media?

  3. “When was the last time you followed up on an ad you saw in print media?”

    Well, Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane joined the Church because of an ad for the BoM he saw in TV Guide or some-such. The movie about his life would be a great proselytizing film if anybody ever thought to use it that way:

    We see the Evangelicals reaching out in unique ways to the goth/punk/disaffected crowd all the time (think Melrose Avenue for those familiar with L.A.). Where are the LDS there?

    One Unitarian ad campaign notwithstanding, it’s the Evangelicals who “gathereth of every kind” these days.

  4. Hmmm. I have a few quibbles with this post, Mark:

    Have you ever been to the South? Football and religion are indistinguishable there. They have walked hand-in-hand for generations. Most people see nothing incompatible between screaming your guts out for your team on Saturday and attending the church of your choice on Sunday.

    Come to think of it, I bet there are a lot of Unitarians in he stands at Patriots games, as well as college games throughout New England.

    It reminds me of a classic misdirection play, where the offensive line blocks in one direction, deceiving the defense just long enough for the ball carrier to sprint around the end in the opposite direction.

    A misdirection play usually involves one or more members of the backfield going the opposite direction from where the ball is going. The offensive line blocks the opposite direction from where the ball is going on every play.

    we Mormons could benefit from a missionary effort which was directed at groups of people we haven’t approached before.

    Who would that be? As a missionary, I was instructed to approach everyone. And I did. To my knowledge, there are no “groups of people we haven’t approached before.” Including football fans. If we were only taking the gospel to people who looked like us, we would be making a pathetic missionary effort indeed, and failing in the injunction, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” Mark 16:15, Mormon 9:22, D&C 68:8, D&C 84:62, D&C 112:28.

  5. Thomas Parkin says:

    Dunno, MCQ … I think he has a point. I think we often, collectively, look at our individual missionary work and say to ourselves: I’ll talk to so and so, cause he would be a good Mormon if he wenre’t already an Episcopalian. But this last word is rarely ‘junkie’ or ‘Punjabi’ or ‘green-hair’ or whatever. It’s as if our range of sight can only penetrate a little way into the Christianish, and can never see that the fundamental gospel is, indeed, universal. I do mean this collectively, as I think that individually we are not this way – even collectively, I think we are getting much better as we become less and less defined by a single cultural expression.

    I was thinking about this early this morning in another light. We are told we should take truth from whatever source we find it. But how far and how deeply should we / do we search? To what degree do we only take our lessons from what is near at hand, religiously, with an uneducated nod to science, rightly cautious or fearful about ‘the world’? If I find truth in the sequences of the Tarot (and I do), how kuch time and attention do I give that. They are not central truths. They are not meaningful to our salvation the way Faith in Christ, repentence, baptism, recept of the Holy Spirit and enduring to end are. But there is something to living by faith (placing hope in true things) rather than fear. I always recall the man with one talent.

    blah blah blah


  6. To kind of mesh the last two comments, I think the injunction to preach to all is followed very well by “The Church” and much less well by the members. I know some of the most successful contacts on my mission were with people who didn’t seem “ready” for the Gospel – and that included the punker, the man living with his girlfriend, the addict AND the rich and well-educated. Yet, in my callings as a member, I constantly see and hear members talking about who might be “ready” to hear and accept the Gospel – as if there is a formula that can be followed. There simply isn’t.

    Personally, I think the football game program advertising is a waste of money. I have made my living for the past 10 years in sales and marketing, and this seems like a classic case of having a marketing budget that will get reduced if not spent. There is an IBM commercial right now that shows a bunch of people lying around “ideating” instead of acting. This seems like an idea that was dreamed up in such a setting. I’m all for innovative thinking, but this one . . .

  7. Doesn’t the Church already invest millions of dollars in its own football TEAM, under the guise of missionary work?

    (Seriously, every time someone says that BYU should dump football, for the future good of the university, the Cougar Club faithful sputter about how many converts football hath wrought.)

  8. Eric, my point exactly. During a game, the only time people look at a program is to see which number belongs to which player. And when the game is over, they throw it on the ground to be swept up with the hot dog wrappers and peanut shells.

    AC, thank you for your thoughtful comment. You are right, it is not so much a matter of “who”, but “when”. And I had never thought of the angle of relationship unity.

    queuno, you sound like you are as amused as I am with the claim of athletic program missionary work. None dare call it conspiracy. But one of the best LD saints I know became interested in the church as a young woman because she liked the Osmonds. You just never know.

    Ray, this decision does have all the earmarks of a decision made in a boardroom, doesn’t it? Scott Adams could get about two weeks of Dilbert fodder from this.

    MikeInWeHo, you’re right about Killer Kane. He responded to a TV guide ad, and when the sisters came to deliver his free Book of Mormon, they told him the book came with some free lessons. He said “OK”. I agree, this would be a great proselyting movie. Happy new year, hermano.

    MCQ, I agree that we are instructed to teach everyone, but the Mormon equivalent of this would be for the Elders to pass out First Vision pamphlets on the beach at spring break. Time and place, man. Time and place.

    Have you ever been to the South?

    You mean like south Louisiana? As I type this comment, I am looking out the window at 70 degree weather, and wearing my t-shirt that says “GEAUX TIGERS!” I fully expect that next Monday at the Superdome my bayou bengals will turn the Buckeyes every which way but loose.

    Football and religion are indistinguishable there.

    Don’t I know it! And the trinity consists of Bear Bryant, Bo Schembechler, and Woody Hayes.

    You’re right about your description of a misdirection play. You can see it here, executed to perfection by Payton Manning when he was still at Tennessee. Go to about 1:40 for the slo-mo breakdown.

    Thomas Parkin, you have a wonderful and unique gift. You improve every conversation you enter. Thank you.

  9. Mark, I deeply envy you. Have some pralines for me and for goodness sakes attend this event if you can (one of my favorite bands, Better Than Ezra, is playing):

    New Orleans, LA
    National Championship Pre-Game Party
    Harrah’s New Orleans
    228 Poydras Street
    New Orleans, LA 70130
    Phone: 800.847.5299
    Local: 504.533.6000
    Doors: 8pm
    *** MUST BE 21+ TO ENTER ***

    Tickets can be purchased in person through the Harrah’s box office, or you can buy them online through Ticketmaster.

    To purchase your Pre-Game Party tickets through Ticketmaster, visit the link below:

  10. This post demonstrates that the ad works. It’s great public relations that creates all sorts of free publicity.

    Ultimately, however, the quality of universalist congregations matters more than ads in some newspaper or on television. Great advertising and poor performance will ruin a corporation’s reputation quickly.

    Great products and great service will generate buzz that no media can buy. In the case of religion, that means congregations where people like each other, welcome strangers and work together to solve the problems of their parishioners.

    Ad campaigns can make a difference but unless you want to sell snake oil for a day, they are not decisive.

  11. We have plenty of pig noses for people to wear where ever amd how ever they choose.