Best to watch, best to play, the sport that draws the best talent, which people are best at—it's tricky to decide which sport is "best"by Benjamin Markovits / April 3, 2019 / Leave a comment
What’s the best sport? Can it be measured or argued about? What does that even mean? Best to watch, best to play, the sport that draws the best talent, which people are best at?
Forbes’s 2018 list of the 10 highest-paid athletes in the world has three footballers, two basketball players, two fighters (of one kind or another), one tennis player and a couple of NFL quarterbacks. Which says something about what people will pay money to watch or emulate, but it also shows an obvious bias towards wealthier markets and games played by men.
Maybe the best thing to do is start with specifics, and look at why some sports work and the problems they face, to get a sense of how we can judge them.
Football, for example. The beautiful game has the virtue of simplicity. You can imagine kids coming up with it from scratch. Here’s a ball, let’s say you can’t use your hands, you get points for kicking it through the gap in the fence. The rules of the game embellish only slightly on these starting principles. And simplicity also explains why so many people play: you don’t need much to get started, just a ball and space and a few friends. But there are artificial complexities. The offside rule, or the fact that keepers get to use their hands, or the penalty area—even the penalty kick itself.
Rugby, which grew from the same root system as football, also has the virtue of simplicity. Here are two lines, here’s a ball, let’s see who can get the ball over the line. But after that the complications begin, rules and traditions that make sense only to people who have become acculturated to them. Scrums, rucks, line-outs, knock-ons. Many sports distinguish between the catch and the drop, but it feels unnatural—a little finicky—to penalize athletes for bobbling.
Basketball has some of the same problems. The premise is simple: throw the ball into a basket. But to produce real competition, you need an obstacle to free movement. In football, the awkwardness of controlling a ball with your feet does the job; in rugby and the NFL, the conflict is physical, you have to fight through tackles. But James Naismith, who invented basketball, wanted it to be a clean game—you had to pass the ball, as in netball. Dribbling was introduced later. But both dribbling and passing involve artificial rules—the one-and-a-half steps, or the different zones in netball.
Then there are the instrumental sports—cricket and baseball, golf and tennis, and the other racket games. Cricket and baseball have to wrestle with the problem of the target. Baseball has the strikezone, which requires an umpire to adjudicate. Cricket seems more straightforward, you have to hit a few sticks in the ground, but the lbw rule adds its own complications.
Both sports involve not just a lot of people but a lot of standing around. Personally, I prefer cricket, it has the appeal of deep oddity. I once played for a village side, sat in the pavilion all afternoon drinking tea, came out eventually to bat tenth, nicked one behind on the second ball, and returned to the pavilion. It was more of a day out than a sport.
Tennis seems to me almost perfect, complex and simple at the same time, cleanly elegant—let’s hit a ball over a barrier, lets draw some lines—but the advantage of serving doesn’t quite solve the problem of repetitiveness. There’s a lot of back and forth. American football is all artificial complexity, but the basic narrative unit, the four-down structure, is immediately compelling. Rugby seems like an exercise in frustration, endless futility interrupted by moments of ecstatic breakthrough. Football, too. I guess it depends on how much you like frustration.
My own preference? Still basketball. It’s the only one of these sports you can usefully play by yourself. Like the old joke about sex—too special to share with anyone else.