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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chapter 18. 57 Channels

by Bob Andelman

"I typically watch games by myself. Particularly while I'm watching the Giants. I'm not too receptive to other people's comments, particularly if they don't like the Giants. I get a little intense. I'm fixated on the TV. When the Giants were in Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, I watched it with my wife, my mother-in-law and her husband. I kept turning up the TV every time they started a conversation. My mother-in-law was undaunted. She kept reminding everyone that Buffalo was making a comeback. I about threw her out the window."

Mark von Dwingelo
Management consultant

Football became America's darling in the late 1960s and early '70s when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle made television a partner in his sport. Little did Rozelle imagine what would happen two decades later when remote control clickers, cable and home satellite receivers joined the fray.

The vast majority of football fans these days prefer to watch their teams charge on to fields of glory from the comfort of their living rooms. The explosion of televised games broadened some geographic boundaries and erased others, creating legions of fans whose loyalty knows no state lines.

Millions more watch football on TV (or listen on radio) than could possibly fit into all the college and pro stadiums ever built in the United States. And even if there were enough seats to accommodate them there are plenty of other limitations -- distance and cost, to name two. People who live in the middle of Nebraska, South Dakota or Wyoming can't get to many pro football games in person. However, they, like transplanted New Yorkers living in Miami, can still catch most of the Jets and Giants games, while Bostonians are at ease praying for the fortunes of the Cowboys and Oilers.

Football, far and away, is the sport that translates best to television. The slow stop-and-go grind works wonderfully on the home screen. Hockey must be the worst for TV, because the puck moves so fast and suddenly the camera fails to accurately follow it.

• "I like watching on TV because you get to watch more than one game at a time," Eric Berger, a lawyer in Sunrise, Florida, says. "I'm a remote-control madman. In Fort Lauderdale, my cable company carries the NBC and CBS affiliates from both Miami and West Palm Beach. Sometimes the affiliates show different games. It's so enjoyable. Doing it as long and as much as I have -- with the benefit of instant-replay -- you can watch all that without missing any important parts of the game. And yes, it drives my wife crazy."

• Browns fan Bill Evans grew up in Cleveland and lives in Columbus today. "I watch football on TV; I've been to very few games in my life," he says. "Even if I lived in Cleveland, I wouldn't go to every game. The weather is crappy. On TV, I can watch other things, I can watch two or three games and get replays."

• In college, Andrew Spear found it impossible to get tickets to see the Denver Broncos. It was much easier -- and cheaper -- to watch the games on television. It turned into a ritual; now living in San Francisco, he watches up to four pro games a week.

"I don't watch every game on television," Spear says. "But I do set aside time to watch the teams I follow: the Broncos, 49ers and the Vikings. In that order. I watch with close friends or alone. The best is when I'm with somebody, but it has to be somebody who pays attention to the game."

A brilliantly choreographed 1993 commercial featured Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith complaining that football moves so fast he never gets to meet anybody new. With Smith as our guide, we see the football field through his eyes: Speeding down field, he introduces himself to opposing players while streaking past them. "Hi, I'm Emmitt . . . Hi, I'm Emmitt . . . "

TV games differ significantly from the ones ticket buyers see while wedged in the stands at the Metrodome or the L.A. Coliseum. Multiple cameras and angles -- overhead, on the sidelines, in the end zones and even strapped to the helmets of players -- bring the game to the home viewer from every possible point of view.

"I'd much prefer to watch a game on TV where I can see replays and not have to catch a bus to the stadium and back," Larry Mayer, managing editor of the Chicago Bear Report, says "I had season tickets for 10 years until I got this job. Maybe it was my seats; I used to tape the games, rush home and see what I missed."

Mayer's got nothing on Bill Price, however.

When the Buffalo Bills are on the road, the season ticketholder sets his VCR to record the game on television and goes out to a movie. He finds that watching the games live on TV makes him too tense. Radio is even worse. When he returns from the movie, he'll catch the end of the game, listen to post-game commentary and reaction, then rewind to the beginning and watch the whole thing.

"People find that odd," Price says, "but I'd rather find out the result all at once and watch the game slowly. Even if they lose, I watch it." In fact, he also tapes home games and rushes home from Bills Stadium to watch the whole thing over again instead of watching a second game. "It's very enjoyable to watch your team win, I'll tell you that," he says.

Another Bills fan, retired tool company executive Ralph Weisbeck, appreciates guys like Price who buy enough tickets to ensure sell-outs of Buffalo home games so Weisbeck can watch them from the comfort of his easy chair. "You get better seats at home," he says.

* * *

Why do men sit glued to the tube every fall, watching hour after hour of football, cheerfully excluding everything around them? Hint: It ain't the shoes, Spike.

One of the things that happens with football -- and this is probably true of other sports as well -- is that we don't continually lose and we don't continually win. We may be in the middle, where we win more than we lose, or vice versa, but it's the concept of partial reinforcement. What that means is that our team wins just enough so that the hook is set and we're going to be interested in it. Even if our guys didn't win today, there were a whole series of great passes, great hits, good defense and good offense. We get enough within the game to build hope.

Part of the repeated viewing is a man's identification with his team. He becomes very possessive of "his" Colts or "his" Chargers. That's a positive identification. There is also negative identification, when a person is against the other team, as in "I'm for whoever plays Minnesota."

"There is also a third kind of identification," Tutko says. "These are people who just love the game. They could go to a high school game and not even know who the two teams are and still enjoy the game."

That description would fit Harold Hyman: "Oh, man," Hyman says. "Saturday, all day, and Sunday, it's the same. I watch bits and pieces of whatever's on. I don't know if I'd watch three hours of Oregon-Oregon State, but if it's on TV, the game is on in our house. Monday night, I'm doing other things, but the game is on."

Dr. Thomas A. Tutko believes that this form of ultrafans, the ones who live to watch NFL, college, Canadian Football League and Arena Football League games, may be overdoing it.

"It can become an incredible escape," he says. "There are some people who are absolute sports buffs. It is a retreat from reality. It's identification outside their jobs. They're hunting for other places that they can have some kind of tie or emotion. Thoreau said men lead lives of quiet desperation. I think that is true for a number of people. The sport allows them an adrenalin rush, a bit of excitement."

Dr. Daniel Begel, a Milwaukee psychiatrist and founder of the International Society for Sports Psychiatry, agrees. He calls football "an antidote for despair."

* * *

Just as an entire tailgating culture developed around seeing football games in person, so do rituals take place for those who watch on television.

"I won't schedule things for Sunday afternoons," Boston's Kenton Blagbrough says. "Sunday afternoon is for football games. I plan prior to the 12:30 pre-game show to make sure I've eaten lunch so I'm not making noise and miss anything. I make sure whatever has to get done gets done so I have uninterrupted viewing pleasure. I reserve 12:30- 7 p.m. for watching football."

That's what most of us do: Buy some chips and beer and invite the guys over to watch the game on a 30-inch set, preferably one with picture-in-picture so we can monitor a second game. Or show up three hours before kickoff to secure our favorite table at the neighborhood sports bar, the one with the 6-foot screen and smaller TVs everywhere you turn.

Dan Jiggetts says there is even a certain etiquette to be followed when the guys come over to watch a game: "If they're over your house and eating your chow, chances are they want to be for your team," he says.

* * *

Another reason football is such a hit on television is that it is finite in terms of the time commitment each game requires. An NFL game takes three hours. Set your clock by it, unless the contest goes into overtime. College games last almost as long. It isn't hard to plan a day knowing that from 1-4 p.m. or 4-7 p.m., you're going to be in the living room, watching the Dolphins-Bills game. Try scheduling your day around a baseball game. It's impossible because the games can be as short as 2-1/2 hours or as long as 4 hours.

That element of predictability appeals to us. Rules and parameters exist to control what can and can't happen. We take comfort in knowing what the limits are. A script determines the number of acts and duration but at the same time we bow to the excitement of not knowing how it's going to be played out. In that respect football resembles soap opera.

Drama lures many men to the game. While it may be an overstatement to suggest that on any Sunday, any team could beat any other team, miracles do occur. And sometimes the best contests occur when not just the best teams go head-to-head but when the worst slug it out.

No matter who plays, the final score of a football game isn't a certainty till the fourth quarter gun is fired. Suspense and the ever-present specter of a comeback are what keep the games fresh.

"Every game is like a new story, an individual drama being played out," Harold Hyman says. "I've sat in games being a Gator or Dolphins fan thinking there's no way they can win, and yet they do."

That drama is what keeps the real fans' butts glued to the seats of their La-Z-Boys. But the real appeal for the stay-at-home set is their interaction with the TV.

• "Yes, I do scream at the TV set. Occasionally," Eric Berger says. "Whether it be a bad call or a bonehead play or just a great play by the team I'm not rooting for. It's been ingrained in us since we were young kids to scream at the TV like it's going to have some affect. It doesn't of course."

Berger does not yell at the television for anything other than sports. He says.

• Bill Evans says that of all the televised sports, football best fits his lifestyle.

"Because of the way the game is structured -- action/time-out/action -- it fits what I do on a Sunday," he says. "I can do dishes, I can look away if I have to, as opposed to basketball, which constantly demands your attention."

Some guys are not big TV fans, but they will watch football all day long. Dave Schwarzmueller is one of them.

"I pound the hell out of chairs," he says. "I have an easy chair and I have a tendency to pound the armrests when I get mad. I'll swear when the Bills blow an easy play."

* * *

Baseball, which Dr. Allen L. Sack refers to as a "pastoral game" is more consistent with the values of an earlier, slower-paced America, a country of expansive green fields and grazing cattle.

"Baseball resonated quite well with that kind of life, just before or after the Civil War," Sack says. "But our society has gotten increasingly bureaucratized and industrialized. We have gone from a task-orientation where people worked at a craft and were not preoccupied with assembly line production, to a time-orientation where people work in industries."

Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management theory, wrote and influenced managerial thought in the early 20th century. Taylor felt industry could achieve greater productivity by studying workers very closely. He instituted time and motion studies to eliminate waste.

"Football is more consistent than baseball with Taylor's highly rationalized approach to life, business and society," Sack says. "Whereas baseball is of a slower pace, football fits better with modern industrial values. Especially in notions of time and the passing of time and the tremendous importance we place on every minute that is wasted by inefficiency. First and 10 -- you've got 10 yards and 4 downs and everything is very rationalized. You've got a field laid out in grids. You've got time-outs and sometimes they don't even go into a huddle. The quarterback goes right to the line of scrimmage. It gets faster and faster and the action is constant. It's not the subtlety and the grace and the slowness of movement that you find in a baseball game. You don't have to be particularly subtle to understand and to enjoy football. You can enjoy it without subtlety because every couple of seconds there is another really devastating tackle or shrieks from the crowd or halftime or firecrackers or pageantry or a player being hurt and carried off the field or a fight."

This leads into another major theory of why men love football: instant gratification.

Men long for action. Women provide action. So does gambling. But the easiest, cheapest way to action requires a TV.

For quick stimulation, football beats other sports, cleats down. Hockey and soccer can go whole periods without a score. But in football, you can have an explosive play any minute. And instant replays. Over and over again. Americans prefer action over defense.

"The reason I like football is the excitement," Larry Mayer says. "It mixes a lot of variables: strategy, violence, great athleticism. It's not scripted. You don't know what's going to happen. Anything can happen. In basketball, the game doesn't matter until the last few minutes. In football, teams can come back. "

Football looks like human pinball on the video screen, especially the way young men surf from channel to channel with their remote controls looking for the next big hit. They drive the older guys crazy, punching buttons faster than Dad and Uncle Morty can focus on the last image. They only stop on action.

Adults appreciate slow intrigue but that's not what the kids stop on. They stop on the first murder they see or someone doing a ninja drop-kick on somebody and knocking their lights out. Or they stop on a football or basketball game. It doesn't take much patience to enjoy that. They're not going to stop on baseball because a pitcher is standing on the mound, rubbing a ball or a conference is taking place or, more likely, just endless pitch after pitch and nothing happening. Kids pull away from that.

"Football, because it gives you rapid and instant gratification in terms of seeing action, is far better than other sports," Sack says.
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