Friday, September 16, 2011

Stop the Hype!


It used to be that September was a sporting month to look forward to. The MLB pennant races, the NFL getting started, NHL training camps getting underway, and the US Open all contributed to an exciting and full sports calendar that could be greeted with quiet anticipation.

Alas, those quiet days are a thing of the past. The world of sports has, over the past few years, become a hype machine that runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As a fan, you are simply unable to escape the constant overstatement that accompanies every game, play, or even simple news item. It's loud and in your face, much like a typical drunk spectator.

The absolute worst in this regard is ESPN (at least their television crews), who have gone from being a reasonably impartial broadcaster to a bunch of obnoxious, loudmouth announcers, each trying to upstage the other in an ongoing battle of hyperbole. Of course, when you want people to watch, you have to make every event more compelling than the last, and the only way to do that is by exaggeration.

The most egregious example is now college football, a sport that has seen gains in popularity due to brilliant marketing foisted upon a gullible public starved for entertainment, regardless of how corrupt it may be. The 2004-05 USC Trojans recently lost (fine, had vacated) their national championship (a joke in itself without a playoff) because of violations committed by Reggie Bush. This season, several high profile college football programs are undergoing suspensions or other punishments for similar infractions. Does anybody care? Nope, the opening week game between TCU and Baylor was hyped beyond belief despite most fans not even knowing what TCU stands for, never mind being able to name a single player on either team. Helped by a ridiculous 50-48 final score, ESPN and its announcers breathlessly tweeted just how exciting the game was, and why aren't we all watching!? I guess that is the best way to get ratings now, shameless embellishment.

The NFL is the king of hype when it comes to pro sports. By eliminating defense, it has turned the league into a high-scoring free-for-all that attracts more casual fans at the expense of those who enjoy the game the way it should be played. Naturally, it's far easier to extol the excitement of a 42-34 game rather than a 17-14 affair, so don't expect this to change any time soon.

Doubtless, all of this hype is helped along by the explosion of social media. Whether it be on Facebook, Twitter, or foursquare, fans, players, and even leagues are telling us just how wonderful they are. The NFL recently exited the realm of believability by describing a game as a "pre-season thriller". Pre-season games are a joke in any sport, used by top players to get ready for a grueling season and by the lesser lights to fight for a roster spot. The results are meaningless and to call a game a thriller when the second stringers are playing is insulting to most fans. Or it should be. But fans themselves are now part of the act, sharing each part of their game experience like it was the most incredible thing in the world. Watching a live sporting event is secondary to telling all your friends and followers about it, not to mention each home run, goal or touchdown. I'm not immune to this disease; when on a roadtrip I'll post an update from each game I see. I like to think that these are more factual tidbits rather than hype, but I might be mistaken.

America is not the only country that relentlessly hypes sporting events. The Rugby World Cup is being held in New Zealand right now and the early games are being treated by fans and media as if they were actually meaningful. Rugby is a sport with 8 quality squads and 12 "minnows", and blowouts are common in the first round. The All Blacks hammered Japan 83-7 today but the hype before the game suggested it would be worth watching. Don't get me wrong, the playoff rounds in this tournament are some of the best sporting action you will see, but these early games are not deserving of the hype they receive.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to watch sports for the spectacle of the game, to see the best athletes in the world competing. Now the spectacle is in the stands, the broadcast booth, or on the internet. I realize I'm a dinosaur when it comes to sports fandom; for me the game is what matters, everything else is secondary. I hope that the hype machine eventually runs out of batteries and we can start to focus on the games again, but I doubt that will be happening anytime soon. In the meantime, I'M GOING TO SINGAPORE TO WATCH THE F1 NEXT WEEKEND!!!!!! YEAH!!!!!!

Best,

Sean

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