For all the bad of modernity, how we consume sports is better by the day
Editor’s note: Former BuzzFeed senior sports writer Erik Malinowski has joined FOXSports.com. This is first piece for the site.
It’s very easy to look at any day’s developments in sports – say, oh, this past weekend – and slip into the throes of pessimism, wondering where it all went wrong. A 19-year-old kid was excoriated for shoving a 50-year-old "superfan" who said something dopey (at its laughable best) and possibly wildly offensive (at its cringe-worthy worst). The news of the first possibly gay active NFL player was met with anonymous derision and bad-mouthing before the hot takes had even grown cold. And the outrage of the Olympic day was reserved not for how a young Russian could execute such a searing, brain-deflating performance in the team skate but for her choice of soundtrack.
Sure, it’s easy to harp on these sadder aspects of daily sports news, but the more heartening reality is that, with a little extra effort, it’s clear to see that this is the best time we’ve ever had to be a sports fan. The news of a possible gay NFL player was overwhelmingly welcomed on social media and most directly by his college teammates. A three-game suspension for shoving an abusive fan, in the end, turned attention square on the offending fan’s alma mater, and the unseemly role of unruly fans was given a fresh news cycle, one that hopefully will quash more than a few more. And if you were a cable subscriber, you could’ve been watching any Olympic event you like, from the comfort of your computer or tablet — for free. Same goes for if you want to watch preliminary curling matches between Canada and Germany at 2:20 a.m.
So yes, sports itself may always have its unique shortcomings, flaws that inherently and inevitably suck some of the fun out of the whole endeavor, but the way we consume our sports is more palatable, convenient, instant, customizable, and flat-out better than ever before. Social media means connectivity, and connected devices mean you’re always plugged in even when you’re half-tuned out.
It’s largely technology-based, but it’s not that technology is changing the fundamental actions of sports. If anything, these advances are enhancing the on-field action for the better. Tennis has shown that electronic line judges can not only keep the speed of a game intact but enforce its rules more cleanly. The NHL reviews all its controversial goals from a networked control room in Toronto and can render a ruling in seconds. And while the NFL hasn’t yet put a microchip in a ball to determine if it went over the plane of the end zone, its instant replay 2.0 has been a clear success and can pretty much decipher any ball placement with the use of high-definition TV angles.
Baseball is ready to enter this wild frontier this season with the expanded use of instant replay and closely governed manager challenges. That it’s finally getting wise to the use of new, in-game tech shouldn’t be a surprise — in-stadium cameras compiling PITCHf/x data are the backbone of your mobile score apps and have been for years — and the sport has been careful about using these initiatives not to act as if they’re replacing umpires but to make them better at their jobs. Whether this comes to pass is anyone’s guess, but at least it’s an attempt at something better.
Fans are also steadily becoming the beneficiaries of such progress. High-def scoreboards in all sports have become commonplace. Smartphones have become the new transistor radio, glued to our ears in all conditions, augmenting our in-seat experience as we see fit. A decade ago, there was no iPhone, and pulling your clamshell cell out in the stands got you ridiculed and maybe a beer doused on your head for turning your attention elsewhere. These days, you can "check in" at the ballpark, order food from your seat, and answer the scoreboard trivia question for a chance at a prize. Don’t do these things and you’re often the one who seems like an outcast. In an era where everyone has a connected device, the rules of fandom have irrevocably changed.
And new products like Google Glass are already promising to radically affect how we watch sports. Sure, it looks goofy when you’re walking down the street with one of these rigs affixed to your melon, but when you’re sitting in the Dodger Stadium field level and you can witness the speed, physical break, and other angular properties of a pitcher’s slider a mere second after he throws, that’s the kind of sporting science fiction that old issues of Popular Science used to have to invent. Now, it’s real.
It’s this idea of "how we sports" that will drive growth for the next decade or more. Attendance at stadiums and arenas is woefully stagnant for the most part, and leagues will be desperate to devise new ways to keep everyone engaged, at home but also on site. At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference one year in Boston, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban once said something to the effect that the worst thing an arena could do was install WiFi because it takes the fans’ eyes off the product (i.e. the game) and onto something they’re not selling. On the other hand, Cuban’s Mavericks were also one of the first teams to start using STATS’ groundbreaking SportVU in-arena camera system (now used by the entire NBA) and the oodles of proprietary analytical data that accompanied its implementation – and it helped them win a championship, so maybe he’s not so shortsighted after all.
There’s little thought more grating than the constant idea that this era today is better than the last, but we can’t be so blind to the fact that this is an absolute truth with sports today. Every year is undeniably better than the last. To challenge this idea is to stand blind in the face of an awesome movement of change.
Compared to yesterday, everything is different. May it always be so.