39. Bridge: A Retro marketing plan for a bridge renaissance

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So low has bridge sunk from its glory decades that Yahoo was seriously asked the question “What’s a bridge party? What’s a bridge party!!  Even worse, only three answers were posted by Yahoo . . . and one was from me.

Even worse than that , those who should know better at the ACBL go along with their clueless marketing strategy of selling only one kind of bridge–serious duplicate bridge and tournaments and masters points–to today’s young when the trend today is to social connection–easier to find in social bridge than duplicate.

So here’s my fantasy for a Retro marketing plan to bring back bridge–create a renaissance in bridge before it is too late–about five years.

Over-all strategy should be (1) Retro in theme, suffused with nostalgia, bridge history and lineage back to its ancestor whist, told through myriad stories while at the same time (2) promoting bridge to the young and middle-aged as — practically speaking — the single best life skill one can acquire for a long life and dementia-free old age, and (3) bridge is a game for all, universal, from the most casual of players to the most serious and competitive tournament player.

Contrast that with what one can write about for the general public if the only story is serious bridge? Bridge hands is all. Stories about serious bridge and its glory days, even their jokes, are only understandable to other competitive serious players. Likewise, bridge hands played with esoteric conventions are only understandable by other duplicate players–not the general bridge-playing public. There’s nothing to communicate to the general public, when what’s needed to revive bridge is to intrigue people who don’t play at all—or used to and stopped.

FIVE BASICS – EIGHT SPECIFIC THINGS TO DO

1. Use really first-rate writers who can project that Retro theme and hold the attention of non-bridge players.  Alexander McCall Smith’s wonderful bridge article in the Wall Street Journal  a couple years ago should set the standard.  Two others I suggest are Edward McPherson (wrote The Backwash Squeeze) and David Owen (who has written wonderful articles on golf and bridge). There probably are others writing for Bridge World, ACBL’s Bridge Bulletin and other bridge magazines–but I’m not knowledgeable about them or if they can write for an audience other than duplicate players.

2.  Warren Buffett as Catalyst/Celebrity. Warren Buffett, and his sidekick Bill Gates, are the only bridge celebrities known to the general public. Developing a few celebrities amongst the serious players like Buffett and Gates, but also the tournament winners needs to be a primary goal.

Buffett is the ideal catalyst – a likeable billionaire who plays, loves, and supports bridge financially.  And he has a great face, almost merry. 

3.  Create a series of graphic images (avatars?) for bridge, perhaps in the spirit of Disney,  a new image, replace its negatives, throw a contest for graphic artists.

4.  Take a “Biblical Census” with major publicity to launch it all– you know, like in the bible a decree goes out to report to one’s city to be taxed? Mr. Buffett sends out a decree asking all bridge players to report to Facebook to be counted and sorted and provide demographics for future marketing.

Would have  to offer some kind of incentive—contests? Could have a lottery and three winners get to play with Mr. Buffett, or something like that.  [Note:  Bridge statistics have never been adequately collected. Even back in the 20s sociologists Helen & Robert Lynd complained in Middletown & Middletown in Transition about the “un-countability” of social (the majority) bridge players in their studies of America’s popular culture.]

5.  Establish bridge as a legitimate area of scholarly study and build up its status by sponsoring or co-sponsoring one or more of status-building activities:

Underwrite a new PBS TV bridge teaching series for Audrey Grant (as she did in the 90s)–perhaps in her large-group format?

Grants for Masters and Doctoral studies in popular culture and women’s studies .

Propose a bridge elective for inclusion in women’s studies degrees and MBA degree programs.

Add bridge as an elective for education degrees to teach kids to play.

Add sociable bridge studies and artifacts, etc.  to the ACBL bridge museum. [Note: I am presently in conversation with Bowling Green State University to leave my research “stuff” to their popular culture department where they already have some collections on playing bridge.]

Get some bridge-playing Congressman to propose National Bridge Day? May seem far out, but there are such “days” created for far less worthy reasons!

Who would pay for all this? Why the “high roller” bridge players described in that Newsweek article a year or so ago, “Why Stephen Breyer and Other Power Players Love Bridge” which described the love of billionaires for bridge.

How about Mark Zuckerberg? Perfect status-building project for his sponsorship would be to create an oral history of bridge Facebook page, to preserve stories of bridge players told by them or their children.  I read somewhere his parents were ardent bridge players and I’d bet a smart kid like that would have learned to play as well. 

EIGHT SPECIFIC THINGS TO DO TO MARKET BRIDGE

6. Target the “lost generation” of bridge players and groups of people like those who were once heavily into playing bridge.

The “lost generation” is the  1960-70s college-aged boomers  who ended the tradition of taking up their parents’ bridge game when social revolution and Betty Friedan hit campus in the mid-60s. They are the 55-64 boomers. It must be a #1 priority to convince them (especially daughters of bridge-playing mothers or grandmothers) to take up bridge, thereby restoring the intergenerational link that had existed since around the 1880s beginning with bridge whist.

Other priority targets should be people like those who once were part of the fad for bridge: golfers, college alumni associations, stories in college newspapers, country clubs (golf and bridge used to be a joined-at-the-hip country club combination).

7.   Meet Up and Bridge Meet Ups—actively affiliate, work with and publicize this already-existing internet-based organization.

8.  As You Like It Bridge Clubs. Encourage ACBL Clubs willing to bridge the chasm that exists between the serious and sociable worlds of bridge (but you don’t have to play together!) to become an “As You Like It Bridge Club, offering flexible teaching not just duplicate–rubber bridge and a place to “connect” with others who don’t have the DNA for duplicate. This is all about being open to new approaches to dealing with newcomers who call to ask about bridge. Don’t let that first contact with bridge turn anybody off before it turns them on.

9.  Bridge Tournaments. Create a “cool and sexy” bridge tournament patterned after the Culbertson/Lenz Bridge Battle of the Century in 1931-2 to engage ordinary players in the larger bridge world.

10.  Buffett Bridge Cup Tournament.  Transform it into the kind of bridge/golf event it sounded as if it was going to be when created and patterned after the Ryder Cup. It could be a national country club social event, a news story—watched on computers/TV screens by bridge clubs around the country and places where retirees play bridge.  Next opportunity is 2014.

11. Oprah. As the super-influential catalyst of boomer pop culture who better to recruit to the cause?  I can’t help but think that if Mr. Buffett called Oprah and left a message she’d get back to him. Could ask to run weekly bridge on OWN, intrigue her into learning to play herself and making it one of her “favorite things”—Oprah, once hooked, would be a competitive player—she has that DNA. Appeal to Oprah’s mile-wide “do-gooder” streak. Bridge is one of the best social skills to add to one’s tools for dealing with life at any age. Science is saying bridge may also be an antidote to dementia. Bridge is Green, classy with lineage, uniquely historic, in Retro—might appeal to her as a retirement avocation.

If it all seems too elitist for Oprah–or the movie The Help has turned her off on bridge-playing women–tell her about  . . .

12. The Story of Bridge in Raibidpura in Bridge Blog 37. 

For an inspiring story of the transformative powers of teaching bridge to illiterate children and adults, read the several links in Mark Pharaoh’s article. The articles make clear–one can be illiterate and yet learn to play bridge, a few even play well enough to compete in tournaments.

What’s more, there is a parallel to Raibidpura in American history. Bid whist was the “bridge” game of slaves in the American South. Slaves were forbidden by law from being taught to read, but number skills were taught because they made slaves more useful to their owners for some jobs. You can read about bid whist in Wikipedia. And even in the worst days of segregation (setting for The Help) there were middle-class black women who played bridge–there’s even a play about that, set in Atlanta. 

Researching bid whist and playing bridge as part of black history is precisely the kind of project that could qualify for a grant from one of those High Rollers described in 5 above. And both bid whist and Raibidapura could end the public impression that intimidates many from taking up bridge–it is a game for all and universal.

13.  David Adelman and MiniBridge

And finally, out of the blue of the internet, from northwestern England, comes David Adelman’s idealistic and potentially global approach to teaching bridge in schools. I never intended to include that topic in this blog–the ACBL seems already actively pursuing Bridge in Schools. Adelman’s innovative ideas for en-masse teaching as described in these links (it’s all I really know about them), however, seemed to demand inclusion here to copy/paste:  http://www.mrminibridge.com/ and http://www.ebu.co.uk/minibridge/Adelmanbio.htm

http://www.minibridge.co.uk/qualified_instructors.html

Here’s a bit of historical context on Bridge in Schools. In their Middletown in Transition, about popular culture in mid-America in the 30s, the Lynds indicate contract bridge spread amongst the kids much as it did amongst their parents—it became the “socially in” thing to do–not necessarily by formally teaching the game as a school subject. I quote:

“[auction] bridge was very little played among the working class in 1925 . . . [but] partly through the contagion of the younger group inoculated in high school, [contract bridge] is reported to be growing in popularity south of the tracks, spreading there first through the women’s groups. . . .”

They summed up contract bridge as reaching down to the 6th grade to a degree that leaders of local girls’ clubs complained it was a hindrance to their recruiting. It does seem from these brief brief references, kids in the Culbertson era were also influenced by the fad status of contract bridge amongst their parents and that any “bridge in schools” campaign ought to include both social and duplicate bridge.

THE END – comments welcome!

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