June 30, 2014
Why Americans like sports
As with most Theories of Everything, this will be an exercise in massive generalizations, gross oversimplifications, and carefree stereotyping.
For example, I'll leave out popular sports like skating and gymnastics (except at the end) where the "score" depends on an ultimately subjective evaluation of an athletic performance.
My next leap of logic is to define the popularity of a sport by the amount of regular weekend coverage on network television. Events periodically covered, like the Olympics, the World Cup, and Grand Slam tennis tournaments, don't count.
That makes limiting the field easy, leaving us with: football, basketball, baseball, golf, and NASCAR.
Two complaints commonly voiced about soccer are low scores and ties. Ties, yes. But football and baseball games can also be low scoring. A baseball game where a single pitcher allows no hits, errors, or runs is described as "perfect."
One of the biggest complaints voiced in turn about American sports is more telling: all that stopping and starting and time-outs that stretch a one-hour football game to three hours.
While I would agree that time-outs get mightily abused in basketball and football (and baseball could use some speeding up), the stopping and starting actually gets to the heart of the matter.
Because the stopping and starting is what makes a sport popular on American television. Specifically, the strategy of stopping and starting.
Yep, that's why the crashes matter in NASCAR too. Not only as a model of evolutionary bottlenecking, but because pitting at the right time--under green or risking waiting for a yellow--can make the difference at the end of the race.
All sports make you wonder what will happen next. The most popular American sports invite the viewer to anticipate the strategies each team will take next, and then watch to see if those predictions pay off when play resumes.
Thus the sport has to appeal to the armchair quarterbacks and backseat drivers and wannabee coaches and managers, who also demand that their predictions and expectations pay off quickly.
American football is designed to do just that, which has made it the blockbuster of spectator sports in America. As does golf, which commands comparably tiny audiences but is given saturation coverage most summer weekends.
Any paunchy, middle-aged man can imagine what he would do on the golf course if he had a swing like Tiger Woods, because every once in a great while, that paunchy, middle-aged man will hit a golf ball as well as Tiger Woods.
No, not imagine playing. Imagine strategizing: in this situation, that is what I would do. It's what every little kid playing sandlot football does when squats down in the huddle and traces a down-and-out on the palm of his hand.
The time-outs and game breaks give the coaches and players time to plan the next moves, the viewers time to take a breather and wonder, and the commentators time to examine the stats and discuss all the options when play resumes.
I had a World Cup game on last week as background noise (if anybody scores, it'll get replayed). No discussion of on-field strategies ever came up. Because there was nothing to discuss except what was happening right now.
Rather, soccer teams are described as personalities that shape the player interaction and the game as a whole. Nothing can be said about what will or won't happen at minute 1 or minute 89, except that 22 players will be kicking a ball around.
Want to "live in the moment"? Then soccer is for you. The moment is all you've got and it lasts for an hour and a half. As Dan observed in my last post on the subject:
There is a good portion of a game [of soccer] where there is no offense. Rather the players just push the ball forward and then fall back into defense. Why exhaust oneself to score a goal when the odds are so steep against it happening? [As a result], much of what happens in the game is inconsequential and everyone knows it.
I previously compared soccer to basketball, except with goaltending. Other than the obvious comparison to hockey, soccer also like tennis, slowed way down. Once the ball is in play, the action is real-time and mostly reflexive.
It's all about the now, and what the players are going to do right now is impossible to predict.
The offense will either do something brilliant--on the spur of the moment--or the defense will do something stupid--on the spur of the moment. This is what makes soccer a "performance" sport rather than a "strategy" sport.
|Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.|
Of course, in the end, all popular sports are performance sports judged by their highlight reels. But "American" sports (as defined above) are highlight machines designed to produce high-performance moments that negate the mistakes. Don't be the goat!
Soccer is watched for the unanticipated occurrences of its unpredictable performances, where a single bad roll of the dice can decide a championship.
The American football fan watches a game knowing there will probably be a couple of great passes, a couple of great runs, a couple of great interceptions, a couple of big hits, a couple of long kicks, and a couple of touchdowns.
As the clock winds down, the team behind will take bigger and bigger chances with bigger and bigger plays, and some of them will pay off, but as part of an overall strategy.
The soccer fan knows that something will happen. Maybe even a goal! Maybe. Beyond that, who knows? Maybe this time . . . Well, lotteries are hugely popular around the world too, despite the long--and totally random--odds.