When you turn on the TV today to watch the Super Bowl — preferably about 30 seconds before kickoff so as to avoid the decades of mindless and meaningless chatter leading up to it — it may come as a bit of a surprise to find that the Seattle Seahawks are not one of the participating teams.
A surprise, because to hear tell the praise and projections following the Big Game two years ago, the Seahawks had established themselves as a dynastic football power and a permanent fixture in the Super Bowl.
“Dynasty” has become a severely degraded term in sports. These days any sports franchise with a modicum of success — one championship in a row — immediately has the term draped on it like a robe of royalty. In reality such dynasties are short-lived, nothing like the true sports dynasties such as the New York Yankees in the ’20s through the early ’60s, or the UCLA men’s basketball team of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
The Seahawks’ dynastic reign lasted all of one year.
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Painful as those experiences might have been for local sports fans, they do serve as a useful reminder about life in the business world. Dynasties are rare, hard to establish and harder to maintain.
To illustrate the parallels, consider Walmart.
Walmart has been credited with and accused of a lot of things in its history — among them building a huge and hugely successful and efficient retailing business while wiping out small-town business districts and independent retailers.
As in most cases there are elements of truth and slices of exaggeration and faulty conclusions on both sides of the ledger. The general reputation of Walmart, however, has been one of a powerful company that dominates not just its sector but many related to it and the communities where it operates. Almost dynastic.
Walmart still has size and power, but it’s not quite the same dynastic retail force. Last month the company announced the closing of 269 stores, including 154 in the U.S. (none in Washington). The moves, termed “actively managing our portfolio of assets,” include the closure of 102 locations of a small-format store known as Walmart Express.
In the same announcement, Walmart said it will open 50 to 60 Supercenters and 85 to 95 Neighborhood Markets in the fiscal year beginning Feb. 1, as well as seven to 10 Sam’s Clubs and 200 to 240 stores internationally. This isn’t exactly a company in collapse.
But it’s also not the sign of a company that dominates its own category the way it once did. Of particular interest are the reports coming from stores that are closing, where those who engage in what’s termed “retail arbitrage” (basically buying low one place, selling high in another) are scavenging the shelves for deeply discounted merchandise. And how are they selling those goods? Through the retailing channel that is causing Walmart discomfort — Amazon.com.
Walmart says its strategic plan includes “growing the e-commerce business and expanding pickup services for customers.” Good luck. A lot of retailers have taken a run at Amazon, attempting to dislodge its hegemony over online retail, without much success. Delivery appears to be the next frontier everyone is scrambling to claim, but guess what, Amazon already is there, too.
Amazon is the new dynastic retail power, and along the way it has accumulated the same kind of praise and vilification as Walmart did when it was the undisputed emperor of retail, knocking out not just small independents but large chains such as Kmart.
Will Amazon be dethroned, or at least challenged? History suggests it’s inevitable. Maybe it will be an established company that leapfrogs the incumbent emperor, or maybe it’s an upstart that right now is operating in a garage, or is just an idea rattling around someone’s brain.
We’ve seen it happen before, with local companies of note. Boeing was not the dominant player in commercial aviation until it launched the Jet Age with the 707. Boeing maintained its dominance as domestic competitors fell away, only to face the rise of Airbus, with which it shares an uneasy duopoly in the large passenger-jet model. That dominance may be challenged again if one or several of the emerging jet-building ventures (such as China) are successful.
In business and in sports, nothing’s permanent. It’s why they play the games and it’s why people turn those stray ideas into businesses, to see what’s new or different. Mull on those big concepts as you munch away on your Super Bowl feast, and wonder how soon or even if the Seahawks can get back to building that dynasty.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.