Why men go catatonic in front of TV sport
Men like to watch team sports on TV. You’ve probably picked up that staggering insight already. But let’s go way into the screen and aim a microscope on why it is so popular. What is it that is so absorbing for guys from the age of 7 to 97? Why the lifelong obsession? My model in this piece will be football, because that’s what moves me, but many of the principles detailed here are applicable to the other team sports too.
Perhaps the absolute biggest draw card of all is that it is 100% unpredictable. It is never, ever the same as the game before. Our lives have cyclical patterns of repetitive, predictable administrative tasks to keep the show going — shopping, cooking, cleaning, driving, shaving and so on. A game is a live, totally unpredictable phenomenon that is always different. This is huge. You can imagine the appeal of something where you truly never know what you are going to get, as a short pit stop in a life with constant, episodic repetition, where you often know exactly what you are going to get. The foundation of unpredictability forms an overarching narrative over all the other key elements of the spectacle that suck us in yet further.
One magnetic component is simply seeing a collection of men, giving everything. They are totally and utterly focused on what they are doing. They are in trance and trying their absolute best. They are completely absorbed in a quest. If they are seen to show the slightest drop in intensity, they are screamed out by players, coaches and thousands of spectators. When we go to our offices we are not utterly focused. We are not giving absolutely everything and I doubt very much whether anyone is doing their best at any point. And there’s only screaming if there’s an industrial accident.
We crave the passion and intensity we see in them, doing what they love. We are not at the peak of performance. For the most part, we are not lost in the moment, totally doing what we want. We are mentally away and adopting coping strategies to get through places we don’t really want to be, doing things that we don’t really want to do. Sports players aren’t that, at least until retirement anyway.
There is of course the drama. High drama. Men hate melodrama, but they love drama. It literally gets us out of our seats screaming at a box and it gets us out of ourselves. Out of the blue genius, game-changing incidents, temper explosions, controversial decisions and catastrophic blunders. These are just a handful of some of the cornerstones of the intoxication.
There is also the piece de resistance, a lone element to a game’s unpredictability, when a single individual pulls off a surprising piece of skill to break a deadlock of tightly matched combatants. Someone rises above, and surprises everyone with something totally unexpected, to shock us all and grab the glory.
Maybe the game will be like chess, with moves and counter moves all orchestrated between the complex minds of two masterful coaches. Perhaps it will be a battle, two heavyweight teams slugging it out into the depths of extra-time until one triumphs at an exhaustive finale. The closer the game, the greater the absorption. The greater the stakes, the higher the drama. Yes naturally there are countless dull games. One’s with no spectacle to grab our imagination. Their abundance and ongoing presence serves to elevate the status of the classic match higher still.
We love the way our emotions go on a roller-coaster when we are drawn into drama. We will have physiological and emotional changes and be lost on the addictive, escapist trip. We will the ball in. We will the ball out. We join as one with a team and their goals and urgency becomes enacted out through us, because we want the same thing. For some crazy reason the association with a group of guys means when they get what they want, we feel the joy is pooled and get the some of the same magic dust — the elation of victory.
In a team sport like football, we adore the sheer battle of two teams doing absolutely everything they can to stretch out the tiniest advantage on the mountain to optimum performance. They are often just so evenly matched, both spending millions on sports science, nutrition, motivation speakers, hydrotherapy, hyperbaric chambers, alternative training techniques, coaches, assistant coaches, physiotherapists, doctors and even off-season holidays. Hence it takes exceptional skill, extraordinary vision and often a moment of spellbinding, time-freezing thinking, to break the deadlock and bring home the spoils. A momentary piece of wonder in front of a crowd of thousands and a TV audience of millions.
Large audience = Pressure. A man taking a penalty to win his nation a trophy, with millions watching him is pressure. We don’t win things for our country with a million people watching. Most men, if they knew they had a million people watching, willing them to do something, wouldn’t even be able to stand up. So yes, the pressure of top level team sport is not important like the pressure of operating on a child, but it is intoxicatingly, stupefyingly dramatic and thus perfect television.
Although the match itself is the height of the hypnotic viewing, our addiction means we also get sucked into all the extensive pre-match analysis. The pontificating punditry that tries to lay out the key strategic areas — where the game will be won and lost. Although we will watch this and even consult our own panel of experts among our friends, the odd thing is that most of the time it is entirely inaccurate. Kick off lays it to rest instantly as merely historical filler. A countdown of hot air. The man who breaks the deadlock is very rarely the one predicted. In fact, it never goes as described, thank god. How could it? It is live creation in action. There is no blueprint.
Add in the tribal loyalty element where you actually have YOUR team up there in the battle, the appeal of the spectacle is amplified a hundred fold. You long for what they long for. You will them through all the obstacles the opposition and officials put in the way. Your mind is alongside and you are in it. You are present. You are living in the moment and for fleeting moments, find yourself actually doing what millions of new age books are telling you to do — being.
And if your man is watching a World Cup, then his level of trance and absorption could blank out an earthquake, at least until the picture started flickering. World Cups are every four years. This means that the players do not get to make amends for whatever happens the next Saturday, or even the next season. With such short careers involved it is possible that they may have just one opportunity to shine on the highest stage.
Even if you hate all sport, you’d understand if De Niro had one audition and that was it. You can grasp the stakes at play if a Picasso had an appointment with one art dealer that could make him and if he blew it, he would have to retreat to sketching holidaymakers at the end of a pier.
So when you peel off the layers to see how all the components work and examine which needs are being met, is it not surprising it can be impossible to get our attention mid-game. We are men. We don’t get excited very often. We are masters of being underwhelmed, uninvolved, unmoved, neutral, detached and dismissive. It might not be unfair to say that there is not much that actually moves us. Sport does.
However, whatever great drunken speeches on historical games we may give, we do know sport isn’t important. We may defend why we love it, but we know in the great scheme of the world it is merely play for those who have life’s fundamentals comfortably taken care of.
But the game can light us up like Manhattan, move our bloodstream like a bear attack might and put our incessant mind chatter firmly to bed. It mesmerises, hypnotises and unites us, makes us converse with strangers, makes us sing and dance and weep and resurrects lost emotions of wonder. It contorts our bodies into the star shaped arch of glory that bellows “I AM ALIVE!” Pretty hard to get that from a quiz show.