Most of us, these days, have accrued some form of digital bad habit. Yours, perhaps, is doomscrolling the news, hate-watching TikTok or furtively following the famous pets of Instagram. Mine is a compulsion to refresh a feed of live scores from around the world, many in sports that I’ve never even watched.
It is a debilitating and fruitless pursuit. I don’t want, or need, to know that it’s two-all in the Highland League match between Buckie Thistle and Deveronvale, or that Usman Nurmagomedov has the upper hand against Patricky Freire in their MMA prize fight. All of this information enters my system only to pass straight through it without adding the slightest benefit, like celery. It neither entertains nor delights, also like celery. And yet, given a few spare moments between tasks, my phone-hand will be thumbing through the app before my conscious brain has caught on.
This winter I broke the spell, temporarily at least. Apparently, the best way to disconnect from social media is to know that there’s something on there that you really, really want to avoid. In this case, it was the results of England’s three Test matches in Pakistan, games which started at 5.00am and that I had recorded to watch at a less offensively early time. Work and other commitments intervened, and before I knew it I wasn’t merely a few hours adrift of the action but an entire week.
In the good old days—before smartphones, after the invention of the VHS—it was considerably easier to be a sports fan who had missed the game but recorded it “for later”. You just needed to observe certain rules. Never listen to the radio on the hour. Stick your fingers in your ears on public transport. Issue an immediate ban on sports talk when you meet up with friends. But now that bus stops can broadcast live updates, you need to go into a self-imposed purdah if you want to keep the mystery alive.
If sports lovers can graze on the “best bits”, do they need to watch an entire game anymore?
For most of December, in the end, I had to cut myself off not only from my regular apps but also from every other form of sporting headline. Each time my hand reached towards my phone, or my fingers started tapping in the URL of a news site, I had to catch myself and think strategically about what I was doing.
The result was a delicious holiday from my usual onslaught of media. It also manifested something more magical: a genuinely heightened sense of suspense and excitement for the outcome of the series I was watching. It didn’t hurt that the series turned out to be—spoiler alert!—one of the all-time greats.
Last summer, Sky ran an advertising campaign with the slogan: “It’s Only Live Once”. The broadcasting megalith was clearly feeling threatened. Increasing numbers of fans are getting their sporting fix through social media, where instant updates and highlight clips of wonder goals, crunching tackles, soaring sixes and knockout punches are universally available. If sports lovers can feed their craving by grazing on the “best bits” of events, at their own personal convenience, do they need to watch an entire game anymore?
An exaggeration, perhaps—but an interesting thought experiment nonetheless, that reveals some unexpected truths about one of the world’s primary sources of entertainment. It was only a couple of generations back that you pretty much had to be present at the ground to watch your team in action. And that didn’t stop hundreds of thousands of people following their clubs and their favourite players second-hand, through written match reports that they could only access the following day.
So yes, live sport does only happen once: that is an integral part of its appeal. And yet, in reality, none of us have the leisure capacity to consume it all as it happens, which is why highlights packages and shows like Match of the Day evolved. Shared snippets on social media are merely the latest technological extension to the way we’ve been enjoying sport since the Victorians. The question we need to be asking ourselves is: is it OK to record a match and fast forward through the boring bits?