failure to convert: blackberry, the green bay packers and the punishment of loyalty

It was a tough weekend to be a fan of either BlackBerry or the Green Bay Packers.

I, being a fan of both, have spent a good part of my Monday morning licking my wounds. RIMBerry was scheduled to release the last remaining popular–in spite of being proprietary–part of its enterprise, BlackBerry Messenger, to the two dominant mobile ecosystems, iOS and Android. It was to herald a new day of rekindled interest in the struggling smartphone vendor–in fact, I believe that’s the name of the company now, BlackBerryTheStrugglingSmartphoneVendor™–by virtue of showing off the best mobile-to-mobile communications service on competing platforms while also teasing the intuitive, gesture-based BB10 UI within the program.

It was really a savvy little bit of subterfuge, that is, until it didn’t really happen.

A leaked version of the Android app was the official reason BBM’s rollout stalled out early Saturday morning. Others pointed to the fact that those BlackBerry owners who had a beta version of BBM Channels–like me–were seemingly unable to communicate with those on iOS or Android. I’m not sure what to believe, other than the rational deduction that can be made would indicate that, if the problem were with a leaked Android version, then it should have had no bearing on those with iPhones. It should also be noted here that 1.1 million people were able to get the app in the few hours it was available, with one report indicating that there were over 32 million attempts to switch App Store profiles to New Zealand, with the intent of grabbing BBM before rollout in other parts of the world. Those who say that BlackBerry is a dead brand are only fooling themselves; that’s over a million former BB owners wanting back into BBM. Clearly, there’s interest.

Clearly, RIMBerry crapped the bed. BlackBerry released a report Friday that they lost nearly a billion dollars in Q2. They needed a flawless rollout of the one aspect of their services still viewed favorably, and they bungled it. For being a man obsessed with flawless execution, CEO Thorsten Heins has presided over some serious misfires, and this last one has seemingly precipitated the news earlier today that Canadian private equity firm Fairfax has agreed in principle to buy the shareholders out at a measly $9/share, which spawned rumors of planned demolition and insider whatnot. Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me if there were something to it, regardless, like a sports franchise that isn’t meeting expectations, it appears that the fire sale is on and the team, as currently constituted, is getting blown up.

No one expected the Green Bay Packers to look like a FOOTBALLFOOTBALLFOOTBALLFOOTBALLFOOTBALL team needing to be blown up but, after three weeks, it’s not looking good. After getting torched by San Francisco in the playoffs last winter, VP of Football Operations Ted Thompson set out prove that his assembled teams weren’t soft and finessed. The return on his investment so far has been brutal: the tough running back who fell into their laps? Out with a concussion. The running back slated to begin the year as the starter? Lost before training camp broke. The starting bookend offensive lineman? Done for the year before it began. (EDITORIAL ASIDE: Therein lies a main problem with football: the best team seldom wins. In fact, it’s that way by design [parity.] The healthiest team tends to win. The NFL is a lie. I digress.)

MASH unit aside, the Packers have lost to middling teams–including a similarly-yet-surprisingly underachieving San Francisco 49ers squad and an upstart Cincinnati Bengals team that hasn’t awakened yet from their dream–while trouncing the dreadful Washington R——s. They’re beating bad teams while getting beaten by similarly mediocre-as-of-this-week units.

For years, I’ve openly complained about Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s insistence on both playing down to the opposition and gameplanning to not lose, a very different notion than playing to win. He doesn’t have to be this way, either: during Green Bay’s Super Bowl championship season in 2010, McCarthy unleashed all of his offensive playbook and even demonstrated some refreshingly unusual cockiness along the way. The team backed up his swagger and won it all.

We’ve never seen that version of McCarthy since. And the team has taken a similarly recalcitrant tack. As it turns out, McCarthy is a great coordinator but a crummy coach. The longer the mediocrity plays out in front of thousands of too-drunk-to-care fans who may or may not be hallucinating that Phillip Epps and Jim Ringo are out there on the not-yet-frozen tundra with Samkon Gado and Vai Sikahema with Bart Starr both on the sidelines and under center–sorry, I got a little carried away there, couldn’t help myself–the more this thinking is validated.

What we have here, both with a cell phone manufacturer and services provider and with a professional football franchise, is a failure to convert.

Last Sunday, when it mattered most, the Packers–who had scored THIRTY UNANSWERED POINTS OVER HALF THE GAME–snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with a fumbling running back who had, previous to week three, zero gameday experience and being forced into a last-ditch drive where the final two plays were passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. When it mattered most, they failed to execute and lost an attainable-enough early season win that will in all likelihood cost them two months from now when the playoff mess begins to order itself.

Last Saturday, when it mattered most, RIMBerry–who had MONTHS TO GET THEIR APP READY TO GO ON THE TWO BIG PLATFORMS and had previously announced that the Android app would be available at 7am EDT Saturday morning–managed to do something even RIMBerry hadn’t done before: taking the one facet of their business still widely regarded as superior and fumbled the handoff to the public. When it mattered most, they took what could have been a catalyst in turning back toward mobile tech relevance and find themselves now a laughingstock on the business end of being bought out for pennies on their 2008 bottom line.

People come and go; pro sports is a business not unlike any other part of the private sector. Leaders change, faces change, the door keeps revolving. The problem is that, when left unattended by an outside force, an entity can begin to take on the qualities of its personnel. Corporate entropy, if you will. The problem with the Packers isn’t relegated to Thompson or McCarthy, but could be seen in the Mike Sherman administration and even at the end of the hallowed Holmgren era. As stewards of one of the more storied legacies in football history, past and present management seems almost timid in comparison to Lambeau, Lombardi, et al. Two solid decades of suck seem to have left a team, administration and fanbase stuck in a perpetual inferiority complex. (Perhaps all those years of splitting home games between Lambeau Field and Milwaukee County Stadium have something to do with that; with Milwaukee perpetually feeling little city syndrome compared to Chicago.)

In the same way, the problems with BlackBerry are not solely the province of current CEO Thorsten Heins or the new scapegoat du jour for CrackBerry Nation, CMO Frank Boulben. There’s a reason the firm was known for years as Research in [Slow] Motion; these problems were around during the years founder Mike Lazaridis and his co-CEO Jim Balsillie ran the joint. They eschewed Apple’s entrant into the mobile arms race and have been playing catch-up ever since. Remember that this company, along with Palm, ushered in the era of the smartphone, they were kings of the mountain at one point. They took themselves too seriously, didn’t take their competition seriously enough, and are now on the precipice of the private unknown. Now, they can’t seem to do anything right.

What’s especially galling about the current state of affairs for PackBerry is that both are capable of good things: Green Bay has one of the best quarterbacks in the league and a talented set of skill players on both sides of the ball. BlackBerry 10 is a great platform, and the new phones retain their superior call quality while running a smooth and virtually fail-safe QNX-based user interface. Great talent and a great product both under the threat of being squandered by those calling the shots, unfairly burdened by root causes completely away from their control.

Those who take the loss most seriously are those who stand to gain the least: the fanbases of both. Loyalty exists out here in the public but, if the truth be told, it’s unidirectional: these companies don’t owe us anything, especially when we fail to hold them accountable. Packers fans and BlackBerry fans alike come up with any number of apologies for the reason things aren’t working out, but they do nothing to address real problems, like parents who blame the teacher instead of their own beloved and perfect cherub-child for little Timmy’s failure. These entities ultimately take their customer bases for granted; if they didn’t, we’d see a difference in the way they go about their business. And we let them off the hook by being faithful.

We are punished for being loyal, while also punishing ourselves for the same. And, when they go out and lay a big egg, we come up with excuses for them, when we should demand accountability. They put on a press conference or issue a presser and we are placated; there’s always next time, there’s always next week. ‘Wait ’til next year’ is the entire premise of those strange and curious things referred to as Cubs fans. There is no next year, there is no next time out. Though I am loath to admit it, and for as slimy as he turned out to be, former Wisconsin Badgers and current Arkansas Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema had the right idea: 1-0. There is no record, no upcoming schedule. Do, or do not, borrowing from Yoda. (And, when someone comes calling with a truckload of ca$h, 1-0 from week-to-week works particularly well; there’s no trace you were ever there after the fact. And no evidence of crapping away multiple Rose Bowls.)

Loyalty works well when there is mutual respect and admiration. When that equilibrium is disrupted, the relationship becomes abusive. Being loyal to a team or a product whose company is not loyal in return is foolish. Love unrequited becomes the folly of the lover, as the loved stands to lose nothing in the arrangement: little to nothing was invested into the relationship in the first place. We can only defend to a point before we, too, are left no choice but to hold the other to account.

Unfortunately, it’s easier to live in the delusion of infatuation than it is to risk confrontation. And as a result, we let teams play down to their opposition and let companies allow themselves to implode. The things we do–or don’t do–for love. The lies we tell ourselves, the games we play, the reality we detach from, all to show loyalty to a team and organization that fundamentally doesn’t give a crap about you or me. Be it a brand, a team or a political party or a church, when we don’t retain our sensibilities, the only party left to blame is in the mirror.

We are all fools. And we will all have weekends like I had.


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