October 26, 2017 • Sara Eagin
Upon entering the winner’s circle, the victor of the Indy 500 is handed a cold glass of milk. Why milk after three-plus hours in a hot car? Because that’s what winners have always done. It’s tradition.
When Louis Meyer, the 1933 winner, requested milk to quench his thirst, a dairy executive saw a branding opportunity and offered to supply milk for his subsequent wins. More than 80 years later, milk is now more than just a cold drink after a long race. It is the drink of champions.
Tradition is built on meaningful, recurring events. Sports are full of traditions: iconic, symbolic actions or items associated with a team and what it means to call yourself a fan. These traditions endure because of the authenticity, emotion and associated ties to the greater whole.
Traditions aren’t required for the win, but they create a sense of camaraderie, of being a part of something bigger than yourself.
Many of these traditions actually stem from the team’s heritage, though fans today may not even realize it. Historic events often lead to tradition, even if historical facts eventually fade.
Some traditions are inspired by longstanding rivalries. Green Bay Packers fans wear cheeseheads at games, a tradition introduced in 1987 when fans embraced an insult popularized by their team’s foes in Illinois.
Every Saturday during the fall, The Ohio State Marching Band performs Script Ohio during its football team’s halftime show, but few remember that the formation was actually created by rival University of Michigan more than 75 years ago to show off their band’s complex drill abilities.
Other traditions evolved from necessity and continue even when they’re no longer necessary. The Cubs’ W flag was originally the flag of the Wrigley family, used on the family’s steamships in the 1910s and ’20s, including those used to transport the team to spring training. In the late 1930s, the family’s flag was placed on the new scoreboard at the ballpark to signal the team’s wins to passengers on trains and vessels passing by. Today, the flag continues to celebrate the team’s wins, recognized more as a W for “win” rather than “Wrigley.”
Tennis players still wear white at Wimbledon, thanks to the 19th-century custom that declared sweat stains inappropriate on colored clothing. Today’s sportswear is designed to prevent sweat stains, and most athletes and sponsors prefer colorful clothes, but the tradition lives on at Wimbledon.
“Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is one of many early 20th century songs about baseball, but it’s the only one still widely known today. The song first became popular when it was played during intermissions at nickelodeons (early theaters). It became part of baseball tradition in the 1930s and was one of many songs used by various teams to entertain the crowds between innings. Once Harry Caray adopted it for his beloved Chicago Cubbies, the song took on a whole new meaning.
Just because someone wants to create a tradition doesn’t mean it will endure. Events become traditions because they align with the character and values of an institution.
In 1952, Pete and Jerry Cusimano, two brothers from Detroit, hurled an octopus onto the ice when the Red Wings were in the playoffs. When the team won the Stanley Cup, the octopus became the team’s good luck charm. While the tradition of octopus tossing is discouraged today, the creature remains the team’s unofficial mascot.
When the Packers’ Defensive Safety LeRoy Butler scored his first-ever touchdown in 1993, he was so excited he jumped on the wall in the end zone and celebrated with the fans. This particular celebration became iconic when other started repeating it. Today, players from all teams attempt the “Lambeau Leap” after scoring in Green Bay.
A few years later, NASCAR driver Dale Jarrett started the tradition of kissing the bricks after a win at the Indianapolis Brickyard to honor the legacy of the original brick-paved race track. Today, winners and their teams continue to kneel at the finish line and kiss the bricks in celebration of their victories.
Some traditions take hold very quickly. After the new children’s hospital at Iowa University overlooking Kinnick Stadium was completed in 2017, fans and players solidified their long-standing support of the hospital with a new tradition. At the end of the first quarter, the entire stadium turns to wave to the children looking on from the hospital’s upper floors.
Traditions aren’t just for sports fans. All companies and brands have them, and they can be used to support the bottom line. Traditions build loyalty, and people who are loyal are happy to weather ups and downs to remain customers over the long term.
While you may not be trying to win the Super Bowl or cheer your team to the Stanley Cup, traditions can foster a positive culture for your brand.
Traditions can be created, but only if they have meaning, authenticity, value or purpose.
Before you seek to create a new tradition, pay attention to those customs, rituals and traditions that you already have. Patterns that are already in place can be evolved into traditions because they are already part of your character.
If your intent is to start a new tradition, look for meaningful, unique, authentic moments from your history that can be replicated. The annual community picnic going back to the 1940s. The catchphrase the founder was known for. The original logo that was used for years.
Seek out traditions from your past to inspire your staff, customers and fans to promote your future. Look to your history for authentic inspiration and build traditions for your own team.