How come the more exciting a sport is, the more boring it is to watch?by Sam Leith / September 18, 2014 / Leave a comment
This column’s remit is, as its title suggests, on the wide side. But it seldom ventures into the world of sport. It has a note from its parents, this column. It is Off Games.
However. I have been puzzling over something, and it has to do with sport—or, at least, to do with the business of watching it. Blame it on a chance discussion about the pleasures of televised golf. This something is: how come the more exciting a sport is—the more of what TV people like to call “jeopardy” it contains—the more boring it is to watch?
Those sports that you might expect to be extremely exciting to be involved in—I mean, roughly, sports in which things move extremely fast, or are prone to explode, or in which there’s a better-than-average chance of the sportsman’s head coming loose from his or her body and turning into a pink mist during the course of the proceedings—are in practice the sports most likely to cause spectators to fall asleep.
Take Formula One. It is quite extraordinarily expensive, technologically bleeding-edge, requires superhuman levels of skill and concentration and, though not as dangerous as it once was, does still come with the implicit promise of life-threatening wipeouts. And is it fun? You might as well tether a couple of mosquitoes to your ear and sit watching an old gramophone record go round for an afternoon. I daresay there’s a certain amount of atmosphere if you’re trackside—the whiff of petrol; the steel breeze riffling Bernie Ecclestone’s hair; the chance to see a blur every minute or two—but basically the thing’s a bust.
Contrast, say, darts. Here is a game that is usually played in the pub. A “sport” in which type 2 diabetes and a mild alcohol problem are regarded as being at the very least no disadvantage, and in which nothing happens but some sweaty blokes in T-shirts standing at a line making the same arm movement over and over again while another sweaty bloke does some simple maths. The closest it gets to jeopardy is the possibility a dart might bounce out and make a small hole in someone’s toe—and that happens less often than you’d hope. Yet it is mesmerising. On the thunk of each dart—and they come handfuls of seconds apart—anything can turn. And yet that moment-to-moment tension is entirely compatible with the spectator’s hypnotically glassy calm.
American football? Astoundingly…