More than a game?

This article first appeared in Farrago (Issue 3, 2012). Every issue, my column “Life S’port” will tackle a different sporting concept.

Farrago Edition 3, 2012: Grab one from Melbourne University.

For 24 consecutive hours I shut myself off from the world.

No Facebook. No television. No contact with other human beings.

I wasn’t training to be a monk. Nor was I forgoing Western pleasures in an attempt to empathise with the developing world. I was trying to avoid the AFL results.

In Melbourne, attempting such a goal is wishful thinking. Even in the trendy inner-city, where coffee drinkers pretend to have little interest in the sporting landscape, there’s still a chance that somebody will unintentionally weave the most recent football scorecard into conversation.

You might wonder why would I even want to steer clear of the footy scores. But as a football diehard I love nothing more than sitting on the couch, switching on the telly, and enjoying the game. Yet by “couch” I mean desk chair; by “telly” I mean Internet; and by “the game” I mean a slow-bandwidth replay of the previous afternoon’s action.

My most recent score—avoiding challenge was almost a success; for the best part of a day I cruised along in blissful ignorance, without any knowledge of the game’s outcome.

Yet Murphy’s Law prevailed yet again. Five minutes into the second quarter, my father burst into my room and instinctively revealed “last night’s” results.

The irony was that his brutal spoiler was good news; my team had pulled off an unlikely victory. Yet this came as little consolation; the game had suddenly lost its aesthetic appeal.

It was as if somebody had prematurely revealed to me that Luke Skywalker shared genes with Darth Vader. Sure, it’s a fantastic twist. But without one-and-a-half films worth of context, it’s just a fleeting piece of pop culture trivia.

I feel quite proud of my ability to write an article that includes references to both AFL and Star Wars. I am such a man.

While many sport lovers care more about the end than the means—to them, a win is a win is a win—I beg to differ. As joyous as a victory might look on paper, it tastes best when served as a two-hour long banquet of surprises.

After all, sport—like Star Wars—is fundamentally a form of entertainment. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to be.

Cinemagoers don’t watch films for the trailers alone, and connoisseurs don’t visit art galleries to chat to the security guards; they follow their respective pursuits to admire the art. It’s debatable, though, whether the same can be said about sport.

Sport’s value thrives on the spirit of the contest; nothing is more engaging than watching two opposition sides put everything on the line, all in the name of competition. This same principle applies as much for gridiron as it does for chess.

Yet never has sport been more polluted by periphery elements than it is today. This is represented no better than by The Age, which includes both Sport and Business as a single lift-out. Superficially this is just a marriage of convenience; readers love tabloid lift-outs as much as Fairfax loves cost cutting. But commerce has invaded the sporting sphere in such a way that it’s difficult to know where The Age’s two sections split.

In today’s corporate sporting empire, players are reduced to employees. Umpires are ombudsman. Spectators are stakeholders. Coaches are like a boss.

This is understandable to a degree. Whether we like it or not, sporting clubs—all the way down to grassroots level—need money to operate.

Bigpond AFL, 12 hour delay. How I love thee.

This becomes an issue, though, when fans become more attached to the club brand than they do with the sport itself. When supporters buy memberships purely to delay a struggling club’s inevitable death. When keyboard warriors chastise their own players for attempting the magnificent (read sixers in cricket, or slam dunks in basketball) instead of maintaining a “professional team attitude.” When one-eyed devotees voluntarily torment themselves to confidence-crushing losses because they think it’s somewhat honourable.

Some call this club loyalty. Others call it religion. I call this a distraction.

Fantasy sport—the online phenomenon behind Dream Team and Supercoach—is another case in point.This global obsession—or at least a variation of it—first began over fifty years ago when Harvard academics predicted which baseballers would score highest in a given year. The game has since soared to great heights this millennium, on the back of the dotcom boom.

On one level, this movement has given sport an extra dimension of entertainment. It has given fans a reason to take interest in otherwise neutral contests; in the fantasy world, you no longer support a single club, but an assortment of players.

The major drawback is that the fantasy world can very easily overtake reality. Some “fans” overlook the beauty of the contest because they’re too busy watching the statistics. Indeed, I know of AFL supporters that find sufficient pleasure out of this numbers-watching hobby alone.

They don’t even watch the game anymore. Not even the highlights. Not even the 24-hour delayed telecast.

They’re following sport without the sport. You may as well follow the stock market.