Saturday, November 21, 2009

Escape vs. Alternative

Back when I was a young Green Bay Packer fan, I would mute the volume on the TV during games and listen to the local radio broadcast team of Jim Irwin and Max McGee. This wasn't because I felt that the local guys were more skilled broadcasters. Jim, the play-by-play guy, would often have to wait until watching the television replay before he would know who it was that made a play. I doubt that Max, the analyst, could have named more than a couple guys on most teams around the league. But what they offered was something that the national broadcasters couldn't: partisanship. In broadcast parlance, they were "homers," and that is precisely what I was looking for. I might have been less informed listening to them, but the trade-off was that I was more entertained.

Though I personally stopped this practice when Jim and Max retired after the 1998 season, I know that some fans still would rather listen to Wayne Larrivee and Larry McCarren than the network broadcasters du jour. I recently saw a message board thread in which someone asked for help in figuring out a way to technically synch-up the radio feed with his cable system. He got some helpful responses, but he also get this unsolicited commentary:

I've always thought fans who dislike network broadcasters need to look inside. If you feel like the network is biased against your team, chances are you're too blindly biased for your team to realize the nature of its true weaknesses.

I find it more interesting to notice when national broadcasters are wrong than be fed propaganda for a team I'm already a fan of. I don't need some guy paid by the team to tell me a guy isn't failing when he really is.

This post intrigues me. I'm intrigued by the notion that the original poster needs to "look inside." Does one's choice of which football broadcast they are to consume really call for introspection? I'm also intrigued by the implications of the second paragraph. Even granting the premise that a broadcaster paid for by a team is spreading "propaganda" (which I think is a bit of a stretch), would that really be a problem? Now, when it comes to news coverage, I'm very much against the idea of state-run media. It is obviously preferable to have an independent fourth estate. But must we be looking for the same standards in sports coverage?

But all that aside, probably the most intriguing part of the post for me is the idea that one could find it "interesting to notice when national broadcasters are wrong." Isn't the game entertaining enough? Must we have a secondary game of trying to internally prove our own intellectual superiority over the broadcasters?

In considering these questions, I find myself also contemplating the recent debate about instant replay in baseball. Given a rash of umpire mistakes in this year's play-offs, there has been an increased call for incorporating options for the use of replay technology. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has been steadfast in resisting such proposals, saying that reviewing umpire calls would disrupt the flow of the game.

I think it can be reasonably predicted what type of fan would agree with Commissioner Selig. The same fan who prefers listening to local announcers over the national announcers would tend to be against replay. On the other hand, the type of fan who finds it "interesting to notice when national broadcasters are wrong" are going to want replay.

One could observe that I am dividing fans into two categories: those who want an emotional experience from games and those who are engaged in a more logical/rational approach to appreciating sports. But I think the divide goes a little deeper than this distinction.

We often hear that sports offers an "escape from reality." And I think that for a number of people this is true. But for others, sports offers not an escape, but an alternative reality. For this type of fan, immersion in a single game is supplanted by immersion in the foundations, the machineries, and the complexities of an entire league. This is the type of fan who will understand rules governing the salary cap structure. They will understand the difference between a baseball player being "optioned" and a player being "outrighted." Such a fan is also likely to want to construct his or her own league. So called "fantasy" leagues, for being a "fantasy," often have rather intricate (and even tedious) rules. And in some of these leagues, there is nothing fantastic about the cash prizes awarded to the winners.

I don't think fantasy sports are fundamentally different from multi-player role playing games. And the rise of RPGs has been roughly simultaneous with the rise of fantasy sports and the emergence of this type of sports fan. But I think it is important to note that the popularity of "World of Warcraft" hasn't killed Trivial Pursuit. There are still a number of people out there who would rather play a simple board game than become immersed in alternate worlds. It's easy enough for manufacturers and retailers to account for both of these audiences. But with sports leagues, it might be a more difficult task to satisfy two fanbases. Perhaps a good start would be to make sure that local radio stations employ only "homers."


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