Which sports are best and worst to watch live? Part I, general observations

Posted on March 17, 2011


At one point in the highly entertaining Champions League match between Bayern Munich and Inter Milan a couple of nights ago we were treated to an extended period in which Bayern’s back four passed the ball back and forth across the pitch. You might have thought they were simply time-wasting, except that it came at a moment when Bayern desperately needed to score. We can only presume they wanted to feed the ball forward but could find nobody safe to pass to. We can only presume this because the international television coverage showed only enough of the pitch for us to see those four Bayern players and two Inter forwards who were putting in a half-assed effort to harass them. How much more interesting it would have been if we’d been permitted to see all of this unfold from a camera place high above and behind the Bayern goal that revealed to the viewers the offensive and defensive formations the Bayern defenders were trying to size up.

That in a nutshell is about half of what is wrong with soccer broadcasting. The other half is the mind-numbing refusal of networks to provide meaningful tactical analysis during or after matches.

This moment reminded me of the Champions League match I had seen last week live at Camp Nou in Barcelona, where even 3/4 the way up the stadium holding 100,000+ spectators, off one of the corners, the view of the teams’ formations was stunningly revealing. (Here is a random, low-rez cameraphone shot from my seat, with the Gunners on their heels.)

This is part of why I suspect that soccer may have the highest “quality of the experience live” to “quality of the experience on TV” ratio of any of the major sports. In any case, as promised in the previous post, here are a few reflections not so much on the way sports are broadcast, which I’ve written a lot on (you can click the “broadcast” category on the right-hand side of the blog), but on the experiences different sports and sports leagues make available to their paying customers. (I will rate specific live experiences of particular sports and leagues in the next post.)

There are, of course, some things that can be appreciated better on TV in every sport. I’m sure I am not the only fan who records on TV most matches I see live in order to pick up on some of the things I missed.

We all need replays, especially slow-motion replays, to understand some of the best or most controversial moments in games. It’s nice to get some real-time information about players and other events that are not clear to spectators (e.g. no one in my section seemed to know why an Arsenal player was sent off in that match, though they were all clearly happy about it), though I can usually get this with a good-old-fashion transistor radio. And many sports experiences are enhanced by being able to appreciate the emotion on the faces, and the skills involved in subtle moves that are obscured from a distance. I suppose this is why we might say that many aspects of the craft of acting are better appreciated in movies than from the third balcony of a theatre.

I dare say that watching on TV is also a fair bit cheaper, and takes less time that going live; and more often than not is a lot more comfortable.

On the other hand, every sport offers positive experiences live that can not be replicated on TV. As long as you’re not overly misanthropic or claustrophobic, there is usually a shared social experience in sports crowds that most fans find appealing — especially those who are strong partisans of their (usually) home team. To many fans, this is what they find most appealing — being with their tribe. But even to the non-tribal fan (such as myself), to differing degrees, depending on the sport and the teams, a crowd can generate moments of spine-tingling excitement and collective joy. It’s also fun to be able to pay some attention to things the TV systematically doesn’t show, like pre-game warm-ups, how the players of opposing teams might hang out a bit together pre-game or during TV timeouts, or how hockey teams manage their personnel changes “on the fly.”

And then there is the dreaded audio-visual public-address system used by the team owners in the stadium…. More on this as I go sport-by-sport in the next post.