This evening is the very first college football playoff, at least at the highest level. I was explaining this to my wife the other day, why these games were so exciting and why it was so cool that Division I football was finally going to have a playoff system. She couldn’t understand why it didn’t have one before and how, for most of its history, the champion was essentially picked by voters. I tried to explain the diffuse and regionalist nature of the early days, how travel inhibited playoffs, and how the system calcified. While this made sense, the end result was the same: the single dumbest and least satisfying way to crown a champion.
So even though four teams isn’t enough, this is at least progress. Progress is a weird thing in sports, which cling to traditions and are intoxicated with their own mythology. Teams, with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, have already embraced what the digital and mobile revolution can do for their on-field performance. But the media and, to an extent, fans have been behind. However, that’s finally changing. Some of the best sports apps and the very nature of our communication systems are changing how we watch sports, and might be changing sports themselves.
Total access decentralizes the experience
Above I was sort of decrying the mustiness and nostalgia-addiction of major sports, which want to see themselves drenched in eternal sepia. For all that, though, I am pretty old-fashioned when it comes to my sports loves – I root for my city and the college I went to, and that’s it. No picking and choosing. Part of how we develop that, of course, comes from familiarity. I grew up watching certain teams, and sometimes there were other games, and there were always the playoffs, but the teams I knew and loved stayed the same.
Now, of course, you have the option to watch any team, at any time. Apps like TuneIn Radio allow you to pick up broadcasts from all the local radio guys, which is awesome. You can be on the bus in Mayor’s Income, Tennesee, watching the Cowboys play, and you can flip over to playoff baseball. So it’s awesome, but it also changes the experience of watching sports in other ways:
- It makes it more of an isolated experience. Sports fandom is great because it’s something that you share, but being able to watch any game at any time means that you’re free to create your own experience and own agenda. And that can be great – it’s pretty liberating not to be trapped by what Fox is showing. However, it lacks the intensity of watching with everyone around you living and dying at the same moment.
- It allows for the decentralized fan. Regionalism is at the heart of most team loyalty, but rooting for a terrible team just because they happen to share your zip code is, at the end of the day, kind of useless. I love it, partly because it is something I share with all my friends and family, but it isn’t needed anymore. You don’t have to grow up watching another 5-11 season and hoping for the future. You can turn on the Patriots or the Seahawks whenever you want. You can watch the Giants instead of the Cubs and read San Francisco beat writers and experts on ESPN.com. The notion of a rooted interest isn’t going away, but it will be lessened over time.
The best sports apps make everyone an expert
Aside from being able to watch every game, you have immediate access to all the information you could ever require. The best sports apps give you up-to-the-minute stats, news, highlights, and even analysis. The great thing about this is that everyone can become an expert. The worst thing about this is that everyone can become an expert.
Having all this access and the ability to broadcast our opinions on seemingly endless forums, from Facebook and Twitter to countless message boards and comment sections, can change the way people watch games. I hate myself for it, but I sometimes find myself mentally arguing with strangers while watching a game, imagining what dumb things they’ll be saying about any given play (because only they are dumb – it’s never me, of course!).
It becomes very easy to watch sports in a meta way, thinking about how you are supposed to be thinking about them, rather than just watching. There’s nothing wrong with this. Sports are all about enjoyment, and if that’s what brings people the most happiness, that’s wonderful. The barrier between the fan experience and the actual game is extremely low now, and to me, even if I choose not to participate in it that way, that is never a bad thing.
Speaking of everyone being an expert, here are my picks for tonight: Oregon and Ohio State, with Oregon winning the whole shebang.