What’s in it for the paying spectator?

Posted on March 9, 2011

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Your humble blogger 3/4 the way up one corner of Camp Nou

I’m guessing, conservatively, that 98% of the sporting events I’ve watched in my lifetime have been on TV. And I’m guessing that this fact does not make me stand out among sports fans. Properly speaking, I am a big fan of sports-on-TV, not of sports as such.

And sure, I have always enjoyed playing sports; but in recent years my sports (distance running and hot yoga) are really just fitness activities. They allow me to be a couch potato without looking like one.

But watching most sports on TV is really so very different from watching them live that I wonder why we don’t spend more time talking about this. If you leave aside purely partisan emotions that allow many fans to enjoy a sporting event (especially live) merely because they care about who wins, I doubt any sports connoisseur would have the same ranking of sports if he or she had to choose between only seeing matches live or only seeing them on TV.

It is very difficult to appreciate some of the most interesting things about certain sports from the stands: e.g. the intricate work that happens on the offensive and defensive lines in a running play in American football, or the majesty of a late-breaking fastball that is swung at and missed. In some sports — again American football, but also the sport the rest of the world calls football — the replay, and even the slow-motion replay provides a large part of the spectator’s understanding of what just happened, and also of the sheer magnificence of the athletic accomplishment.

But equally, there are aspects of every sport that can only be truly appreciated from the stands. I miss seeing all of the detail of every pitcher-hitter match-up when I’m at a game, but I gain much more knowledge of and appreciation for the speed of the players, the defensive alignments, reactions to balls hit into the outfield, and of course of the majestic beauty of a grand ballpark on a summer afternoon. Similarly, in American football, if running plays are difficult to “see” live, you get a much better perspective on the seemingly impossible assignment of the defensive backfield on passing plays.

I have written here a number of times on what is wrong, often terribly wrong, with the broadcasting of many major team sports. Those can generally be found by clicking on the “broadcasting” category-heading on the right-hand column of this blog. Quite possibly the worst broadcasts are of soccer and hockey, where the tendency to focus in too closely on the player with the ball or puck, and from the side, hides most of what is tactically interesting about the two teams’ formations. (And where the more continuous flow of the game doesn’t permit game-time analysis of tactics.)

By the same token, these formation-based sports are amazing to watch live, especially soccer. I saw my first live soccer match in more than a year last night. It was also the biggest crowd I’ve ever been a part of, and probably the most high-profile match I’ve seen live (having attended most of my matches at Loftus Rd…): the Champions League elimination match between Barcelona and Arsenal, at the Camp Nou. One forgets how much squarer the pitch appears in person than it does on TV (the same is true of American football and hockey), how quick and fast the players are, how tight and ephemeral the spaces are, and how skilled passing and receiving of the ball must be to find success at that level. But most of all, one gets to actually see what the teams are trying to do tactically with their formations and attempts to draw their opponents out of their shape. This is barely shown or analyzed during or after games on TV in any of the soccer countries I’ve ever watched the sport in.

And then there is the contribution to the whole experience of the “energy” of your fellow spectators. This varies significantly from sport to sport, and country to country. (More on this in the next post.) But it is hard not to be moved by tens of thousands of supporters singing a song with an actual melody.

If some evil demon permitted me to watch sports live, but not on TV, then other things equal (because it matters that you are following a sport that matters in the right way in your cultural/geographical milieu), it’s quite likely that soccer would be my favorite sport. It lacks the tactical and strategic sophistication, and the range and variety of athletic displays, of American football, for example. So it may not be as “intrinsically great” a sport. But for several reasons it offers an excellent package for the paying customers.

Although my lifetime ratio of sports-on-TV to sports-live may be about 49-1, I have in recent months seen game in quite a number of different sports and leagues live, and I’ve been waiting for an excuse to compare how they treat their fans in the stands. I’ll do that in the next post.

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