The Man Wall is a new product that has to be the sports fan’s ultimate wet dream. It is an entertainment center: a wall unit that is loaded with four television sets, a live sports ticker, two cigar humidors ( why two?) a microwave oven and a refrigerated beer tap.Priced at $ 14, 900 the Man Wall is expensive but I’m sure there are some well-to-do sports buffs who will be glad to shell out the money. It contains everything they could possibly want . Now they can park themselves in front of the Man Wall with their friends , send out for pizza or KFC and have their choice of different games , four at a time. Sports Nirvana !!
Products such as the Man Wall illustrate how different the sports fans of today are and how changes in technology have affected the way in which we relate to sports. In the good ole days, watching sports meant going out to the ballpark, sitting in the afternoon sun with one’s kids and enjoying the game live while scarfing hot dogs and downing a cold brew or two. Those days are long gone . Ticket prices are astronomical and ,in the case of football , tickets are just not available. Watching sports today almost always means watching them on TV.
And really it isn’t too bad a deal. With cable TV , a fan has access to many more games than before . With ESPN ( 1 and 2), TNT, the Golf Channel, MSG, SNY and the regular channels all vying with each other the sports fan has a variety of choices. Also, With the advent of HDTV, he can follow the game better at home than if he had watched it live. The picture is crisp and clear; there are instant replays , slo-mo replays to explain how it happened , multiple camera angles and expert commentary. He can also be warm and comfortable in his den or basement, not freezing his balls off in the upper reaches of some stadium. I remember going to an early season N.Y. Giants football game once. It was 42 degrees and sunny but the wind was blowing and I was chilled to the bone even though I was wearing three layers of clothing. From where we sat, the players looked like ants, spectators kept moving to and fro in front of us, and most of the time we followed the action on the big TV screenbehind the end zone .And to think we’d paid $125 / ticket for the privilege of watching the game live( LOL) ! Never again !!
I am also convinced that television makes the games appear more interesting than they really are. I have in the past been to pro basketball games but, in every single case, the action seemed helterskelter. A player would miss a shot at one end , the ball would be advanced to the other end and an opposing player would throw up a rock. Between all the free throws and time-0uts there was just no continuity to the game . Watching on TV, espescially HDTV, would have been far more preferable. Ice hockey is the only sport that is better live because you can see the whole rink and actually see the play developing.
Computers have hugely affected the way in which we relate to sports. Because of computers, there are more sports statistics than ever including categories that never existed a few years earlier. For instance, baseball box scores used to record Wins(W) and Saves (S);somewhere along the line they also started to keep track of relief pitchers who held the opposing team at bay but did not stick around till the final out . Such pitchers are now credited with an H ( hold ?). In basketball, they used to tabulate the minutes played by each player ; now they keep track of the minutes and seconds that each player is on the court. Talk about meaningless stats! It seems as if some player or another is setting a new record in practically every game. ( The first player to average more than fifteen points and six assists a game in two consecutive seasons! The only player to hit eighteen home runs and steal twelve bases in his rookie year.!) I’m exaggerating but not by much. Sadly, some fans think the stats are the game and talking heads like Tony Kornheiser perpetuate that misconception.
Computers also enable all sorts of statistical analysis which makes its way into the sports pages. A recent newspaper article analyzed the Wimbledon mens final match between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick. Much was made of the aces , service winners, forced errors, unforced errors , backhand winners, first serve percentages, percentage of points won on the first serve and second serve respectively, number of net approaches and the like. It was all very edifying though I’ve forgatten what the conclusions were. Even as I admired the work that had gone into the analysis, I couldn’t help thinking that the emphasis on analysis detracted from what was an enthralling match played at a high level of skill throughout. It was like taking apart a butterfly to see what made it tick.
Increasingly , the sports action is not confined to the field. The nature of modern pro sports also means that sports fans have to keep track of much more than wins and losses. With pro athletes jumping ship at every opportunity to make big (ger) bucks, fans have to keep track of trades, expiring contracts , draft choices, cap space, luxury tax thresholds, free agents ( restricted and unrestricted) etc. They are able to do so , in no small part, due to the proliferating number of sports blogs. Many of these blogs are team specific and it is amusing , even a little touching, to see how strongly the fans identify with their team and with each other.Of course there is a lot of cussing and salty language on these sites as fans “invade” enemy sites and vilify rival teams.
In this era of big money pro sports when players are no longer tied to a team , when every indiscretion by a player makes the newspapers or the blogs, the relationship between the fans and players has also changed. Wide eyed adoration of players by fans is a thing of the past . Fans today are much more cynical about their heroes. This morning’s Wall Street Journal carried a story about “ballhawks” , spectators who go to baseball games intending to grab any ball that goes into the stands. If the ball is a milestone ball, like a players first HR or his hundredth, the ballhawk refuses to give it back to the player unless he gets something valuable in return. In the old days, the ball would be returned to the player for an autograph, an autographed ball or a signed photograph. Nowadays the ransom is much higher. One such ballhawk, Nick Yohanek, has caught more than 50 home-run balls since 1998 . It’s not a matter of luck because he does an awful lot of research to figure out where the ball is likely to be hit by a particular batter, the dimensions of the ballpark and even the opposing pitcher.This kind of research would never have been possible before computers and the internet.
To sum it all up, the modern fan is more savvy, more up-to-date with sports trivia, more hard eyed and more parochial . He hates other teams just as much as he loves his own and he places a much greater premium on winning. In the process though, I wonder if he has not lost some of the true enjoyment of sport.