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Runnerup Trophies Breed Society of Happy Losers

By: John Malmo

John Malmo began an advertising agency on a cardtable above a delicatessen in 1967 and built it into the largest in the mid-south. He also owned a travel agency, a clock shop, and a snack food manufacturing company. He is president of Koenig, Inc., Management Consulting, specializing in marketing, and he writes a weekly business commentary column for The Commercial Appeal. His 45 years of marketing experience encompass, virtually, every business category. Email him at:

Readers of the sports page a few weeks ago must have been struck by the fact that by late August, there were 114 touring golf professionals who had already earned over $100,000 on the 1992 PGA tour.  Fifty-eight had earned over $200,000 in prize money, and 21 had earned over a half-million dollars.  TWENTY-ONE.  Yet only a few of the 130 pros listed among the “leading money winners,” the least of whom had earned $81,857, have won a tournament.

Many of those readers probably also remember British and Australian golf pros saying a couple years ago that Americans had lost their desire to win.  They said American pros could become rich on the tour by losing every week.  Right or wrong, it’s a good thought snack, because, like most things, it’s probably at least partly true.  And it effects not just the sports business, but all businesses.

For even in these sparse times in our “land of plenty” there appear to be enough auto sales to satisfy all auto salesmen/women.  Otherwise, why are so many of them who can answer so few questions about the cars they’re paid to sell standing around sipping soda pop when you walk in instead of memorizing the product literature?  And the restaurant business must be so good that even the owner can walk across a dirty floor to read a magazine when he could be sweeping, wiping or calling a regular customer he hasn’t seen for a few weeks?  The answer is that business must be “good enough.”

There used to be a phrase, “to the winner go the spoils.”  It is a lead-pipe cinch that since you’ve heard those words uttered, you’ve heard said 1,000 times, “You can’t win ‘em all.”  Ask 100 high school students and maybe two to three will say they’re trying to be class valedictorian.  Out of 100 new employees maybe one or two will say he/she aspires to be president of the company.

Unintentionally, it would seem as though we begin training people for mediocrity, for losing, at an early age.  Once upon a time in children’s sports the winner got a trophy.  Then someone conceived the runner-up trophy.  Later came individual trophies for every member of the winning team.  Then runner-up teammate trophies.  Now some leagues give everyone in the league a trophy for “participating.”  Optimistically, call it great salesmanship on behalf of trophy makers.  Also call it diminishing the importance of winning.  Merely participating now is enough.  For, “to the loser, too, go the spoils.”

The advertising business in America now gives more awards for creativity every year than there are total employees in all the advertising agencies combined.  So who cares?  In a room of 1,000 winners nobody’s THE winner.  Constant emphasis is no emphasis.  There are so many championships today that we have no more champions.  And if there’s one thing American business needs, it’s more and better champs.

Holiday Inns was not founded to be the best motels in America.  There was no such thing as a luxurious Holiday Inn.  You got carpeting, a TV, a ‘phone, a pool and a restaurant that wasn’t 100 yards across the parking lot on a rainy morning. But you only paid about eight bucks.  McDonald’s was never intended to be the very best hamburger.  The onions are reconstituted in water and the potatoes are frozen.  But Holiday Inns was founded to be No. 1 in success because Kemmons Wilson was not a loser.  He is as feisty and competitive as a blue jay on a cat’s head and, by God, wasn’t gonna be No. 2.  And Ray Kroch set out to be No. 1.  McDonald’s has never wanted to just beat the competition.  They want them out of business.  Closed.  Turned into parking lots.

There are lots of reasons why people and companies lose their passion to be No. 1, like arrogance.  Some guy missed the Olympic team this year because he was too arrogant to vault at lower heights for the necessary points, then missed higher.  And it was decades of sheer arrogance that turned the U.S. into an also-ran in the automotive world.

But the desire, the need to be No. 1, is still the critical element in achievement.  And as long as we teach children that they will be rewarded when they lose because we don’t want their feelings hurt, then it won’t hurt to lose.  So why bother to try to win.  And they grow into businessmen and women who are satisfied with losing, have no vision of winning, don’t even know how to gamble the extra effort to be the best.  That diminishes competition and lowers the quality of the ultimate winner.  So we end up with guys making millions of dollars running companies into bankruptcy, and the likes of George Bush and Bill Clinton to choose between for No. 1 among us all.

Hopefully, they certainly aren’t the best America has to offer.  They just want it more than anybody else, and the competition was so sorry.  The losers probably have closets full of runners-up trophies.

© Copyright 2000, John Malmo

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