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A Magazine of Ideas

Not Being There

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Don’t let the hype fool you: the best place to watch the U.S. Open and many other sports these days is from your couch.

“Nothing Beats Being Here” reads an ad for the forthcoming U.S. Tennis Open that I noticed the other day on the Tennis Channel. My first response, which is also my second and third response, is that the one thing that beats being there, and beats it indubitably, is not being there. I don’t know what tickets to the U.S. Open cost, but if they are in the range of other major sporting events, they are probably around the same price as opera tickets. Then there are the streaming, steaming, sweating crowds. Toss in the likelihood of not being able to get seats with a good view of the proceedings, the costly food, and being at the mercy of the weather, and there is no doubt about it: nothing beats being there except not being there.

Thirty or so years ago, I had a notion for writing a book about attending all the major sports events in a given year. I would go to the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500, Wimbledon, the Masters at Augusta, Georgia, the World Series, The Super Bowl, the finals of the Stanley Cup and the NBA. In the book, I would recount the feeling, the atmosphere of being at these events as well as the events themselves. I imagined travelling in first class, people-watching on Bourbon Street, enjoying strawberries and cream, sipping mint juleps in Louisville, and falling into king-size beds in four-star hotels at the end of excitingly exhausting days.

What was I thinking? I seem to have forgotten how joyless some of these events can be, even under the best of circumstances. Here, for example, is the masterly sports writer Red Smith commenting in 1948 on the Indy 500: “The flying start was a burst of colors. Since then, it has been an unceasing grind, hour after hour, making the eyeballs ache, the temples throb. Every car has a different voice, none soothing.”

Sports promoters seem to believe that, as on radio, there should be no dead time during a game, something must be happening every second, silence is prohibited, the eye must have something to engage it at all times.

I never wrote up a proposal for the book, but whatever sum my agent might have asked for as an advance for my doing it, I would now be willing to pay for not writing such a book. Hellish, nightmarish, sheer torture are among the words that come to mind today when I think about attending all those events; doing them all in a single year feels suicidal.

When the U.S. Open begins, I shall be at my post, not in Arthur Ashe or Louis Armstrong Stadiums in Flushing Meadows but ensconced in my chair, a cup of coffee or tea or a glass of Reisling on the lamp table at my side. I shall probably record on my DVR what look to be the most promising matches, and thus be able to watch them at my convenience. While watching, I plan to take two or three breaks to grab a nectarine from the refrigerator, check my computer for e-mail in the next room, or maybe walk out on an errand, all while the match in question is left on hold. In fact, if the match itself doesn’t live up to expectations, I might well fast-forward it toward its final set. Ah, the simple pleasures of not being there.

As it happens, I shall be going to a Chicago Cubs-Washington Nationals game this week. My ticket cost $75; it will cost another $35 to park my car; and a beer, a hot dog, maybe some peanuts will add another $20 – a quick 130 bucks for an afternoon at the old ball park. I’m going because a friend from high-school days suggested it. I’m also going because by this time next year, Wrigley Field will likely have added a Jumbotron, one of those monstrous scoreboards that resemble a Brobdignagian smart phone, though one that never shuts off. Under the tyranny of the Jumbotron, while sitting at once tranquil Wrigley Field, conversations about the game, old friends, the state of the world will have to give way to the race of the M&Ms, Fan Cam, players statistics, advertisements, and rock music.

Pro basketball games, I note, no longer allow any time for repose. Once a time-out is called, out come the dancing girls, miniature blimps, acrobats, jugglers, magicians – everything but human sacrifices. Sports promoters seem to believe that, as on radio, there should be no dead time during a game: something must be happening every second. Silence is prohibited. The eye must have something to engage it at all times.

No bag is more mixed for the couch potato than technology and sports. Technology can make viewing sports events on the scene at ball parks, stadiums, and tennis courts more irritating, as in the instance of the Jumbotron, while making viewing them at home more pleasing. Owing to DVRs, replays, slow-motion cameras, and the rest, watching sports on television makes the couch potato feel in better control of the game experience. I haven’t been to more than five or six hockey games in my life, but at none of them have I ever actually seen a goal get scored; I only saw people around me jump to their feet and begin to scream. Only through television replay, usually entailing a slow-motioning of the action, have I seen goals scored. Reliance on replays applies to so many other fast-action moments in sports.

Readers of this column will doubtless contend that despite all I’ve said, nothing beats being on the scene, among the hordes otherwise known as fellow fans.

Depends. . . . A friend told me not long ago that he had the misfortune of taking his young daughter to a Chicago White Sox game and found himself seated in front of a beer-an-inning man whose diction by the sixth inning was limited almost entirely to loud, slurred four-letter words.

Technology can make viewing sports events on the scene at ball parks and stadiums and tennis more irritating, as in the instance of the Jumbotron, while making viewing them at home more pleasing.

The last time I can remember enjoying being in a crowd at a sports event was at a Chicago Bulls-Milwaukee Bucks game more than forty years ago. It was played in the dead of winter at the old Chicago Stadium. The underdog Bulls won in the game’s final seconds, with their far from graceful center, Tom Boerwinkle, taking more than thirty rebounds playing against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As the crowd left the stadium, snow was falling; everyone seemed to be high in the best sense of the word. It was a time of racial tension, but you would not have known it from the common feeling of exultation in that post-game crowd. People made and threw snowballs. Lots of laughter was in the air. Nowhere else in the world I should rather have been at that moment.

At this moment I am rather content to watch games alone on television. Am I, in this regard, little more than another member of the lonely crowd made possible by digital technology, preferring to take my pleasure alone, seated before my television set, remote in hand? (“Remote” is a perfect name for an instrument that helps keep one remote from the outside world.)

Judging by falling attendance at baseball and basketball games, many people are doing the same thing, staying away and watching sports from their living rooms or dens – voting, you might say, not with their feet but with their rear ends. How better, come to think about it, for a couch potato to vote?

Joseph Epstein is The American’s couch potato and the author of the book Essays in Biography.

FURTHER READING: Epstein also writes “The Original Sports Magazine,” “March Sanity” and “Batter Up.” Robert McHenry chips in with “Reflections of a Casual Fan” while Daniel Hanson explains “Why Packers’ Owners Should Sue NFL” and asks “Is NCAA Amateurism a Sham?” Andrew Rugg looks at Americans’ moods “On Sports, Superstition, and Politics” and Mark J. Perry blogs “Only Tickets Are So Underpriced That An Entire Secondary Industry Exists to Take Advantage of the Discrepancy.”

Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group