I once had a job working in the broadcast department of the non-profit that puts on the annual New York City Marathon. On paper, my job description was something like Make jogging fun to watch for five straight hours of live TV. In reality the job was more about cramming as many ASICS logos onto as many smartphone and television screens as possible and then finding some b-list celebrities to interview so viewers would have something to look at besides jogging and ASICS logos.
Some sports are meant to be broadcast live on TV. Long-distance running is not one of them. For me, watching a person jog is like looking at the face of a shitting dog. The marathon is not a sport that was made for television. It is, in my mind, the furthest you can get from a sport that is meant to be experienced through screens. After what I witnessed near the finish line of the 26.2 miles course of the NYC Marathon, I am not sure if the sport is meant for the average sports spectator at all, never mind a live television production that involves helicopters, police escorts, dozens of camera operators and directors, working with a multi-million dollar budget hedged against their estimated ability to sell sneakers.
Sports that make good TV change because of the medium. When a sport finds success on live television, the sport will honor the medium with gifts that bring TV networks unending opportunities to generate revenue. The relationship is symbiotic, and the more the sport bends to the whims of a medium, the more revenue that medium will bring to the sport. The NFL is the quintessential example of a sport that changed after it found success on TV.
The Marathon was born out of a legend about a fifth-century Greek messenger named Philippides who ran 26.2 miles without stopping to deliver a message that the Greeks had defeated the Persians in battle. As soon as the message was delivered, Philippides collapsed on the ground and died. The essential qualities of the sport remain true to the 5th-century legend.
On the other hand, the NFL's fidelity to the origin of football is practically non-existent. The game barely has a history before television, and television has guided the way the game is played as well as the culture that surrounds the game.
In the early 1970s, as color TVs began to work their way into every home in America, an altarpiece was granted to the NFL at the very center of millions of people's domestic lives. The league eagerly altered the way gridiron football was played to benefit the experience of viewing live broadcasts. Breaks in the gameplay were added to create advertising slots. Instant replay — an element of the game that exists exclusively due to television — was written into the rule books. Players began to shuffle and dance in the end zone, perform back flips for the camera, and other grand theatrical gestures that resemble circus tricks more than the athletic movements related to the game of football. By 1984, when Apple Computer aired its now iconic commercial referencing the novel 1984, it began to become clear that no element of the broadcast during the NFL's biggest annual game would be boring to watch. Not the half-time break, not the commercials, not even a 55-10 blowout during the San Francisco 49er's victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV. If the outcome of the game becomes clear during the first half of the game, there remains a visual feast of Super Bowl-exclusive television entertainment that keep viewers watching.
Long-distance running's premier event, the marathon, on the other hand, has not changed any of its rules since the fifth century. As a sports fan who has general admiration for those athletes who test the limits of what the human body is capable of, I am fascinated by the men and women who have been able to run 26.2 miles in under 2 and 1/4 hours these past five years (whatever their names are). However, as a spectator of sports and a person who watches TV generally, I am far more interested in the fact that the 315 lb NFL offensive tackle Trent Williams, whose primary athletic ability is shoving men of comparable size away from his teammates, has agreed to play another season rather than retiring on the $55M that was guaranteed to him when he signed a contract in 2021.
When I worked on the NYC Marathon broadcast, I happened to be near the finish line when the largest pack of the 50,000 joggers was approaching the end of the race. These were not professional athletes. These were the mere average jogging enthusiasts who have perhaps one or two times in their lives taken on the ultimate jogging challenge of running a marathon.
Demonstrative of how incongruous my personal tastes in media are with the aesthetics of the typical New York City Marathon broadcast, I find that the collapsing and dying of exhaustion element of a marathon to be by far the most worthy of sharing with an audience. Empty stares partially veiled by the glowing red of flushed faces, the middle-of-the-pack marathon jogger approaches the finish line with limbs growing limp. They're forced to hold one another up, sharing limbs, as a jogger who has lost the use of their left leg pairs up with a jogger who has lost the use of their right leg, and both link arms with another jogger who has no remaining working legs and otherwise would be forced to crawl. By the last mile of the race, the minerals in the jogger's bloodstream have been forced out through their pores, so their beet-red faces are covered in a chalky white film. One jogger vomited and then collapsed in a pool of their own bodily fluids which made the person behind them wretch and then trip over the first person, causing a pile-up of vomiting joggers nearly blocking off the entire course and halting the race. Another member of this pack, barely able to stand, crawled under the ASICS-decorated fencing and disappeared into the Central Park woods. I didn't stick around to see if that jogger ever made it back out.
If I was put in charge of a marathon broadcast, this putrid scene near the finish line is what I would show you. Unfortunately, I don't see this being entertaining for five hours. There would have to be some elements added to the game — perhaps thieves dressed in karate outfits hiding in the woods who would run onto the track and attempt to snatch money or clothes from the joggers. Each jogger would get to choose a non-firearm weapon at the start of the race. And maybe some element of a love story could take place, or at least partial nudity. Because unlike essentially every sport that becomes popular on TV, I can find no element of sexiness in jogging.
This year, Major League Baseball is initiating perhaps its most drastic rule change since the home plate was changed from a square to the iconic five-sided figure by a rule initiated in the year 1900. For the first time in its 147-year existence, Major League Baseball will use a clock to limit the amount of time between pitches.
In his press conference about the rule change, commissioner Robert D. Manfred cited "the fans" as his "guiding star" to bring about any rule changes. Claiming to have conducted exhaustive research, Manfred said that baseball fans want three things to change about their sport. 1.) Fans want games with better pace. 2.) Fans want more action, more balls in play. 3.) Fans want to see more athleticism of the MLB's great players.
Once unquestionably the most popular sport in America, Major League Baseball television ratings have been on a steady decline since the early 90s. In 1978, around 44 million Americans tuned in to watch the Yankees take on the Dodgers in the World Series. In 2022 11,780,000 million watched the Phillies and Astros play for the championship. Somewhere around 12 million viewers has become increasingly the norm over the last decade for the Fall Classic.
Despite its drop in TV ratings, baseball is not an unpopular sport. According to my Google search, it's the seventh most popular sport worldwide, ahead of both basketball and gridiron football. Furthermore, more Americans listen to baseball radio broadcasts than any other sport. But popularity and radio broadcasts don't keep the lights on in all those stadiums named after corporate brands. TV is where the money is at for sports, and increasingly with each generation, for people to watch TV, there needs to be action on the screen.
Installing a large digital clock that counts down from 20 seconds every time a baseball pitcher gets set to pitch is a way to make things happen on the screen, and, so far, fans and sportswriters alike generally seem to agree the pitch clock rule is a positive change. I am not so convinced it will have the impact MLB's top brass is hoping for.
For me, baseball is an auditory experience. My grandfather was probably the biggest baseball fan I've ever known. He followed the Giants from New York out to San Francisco, and most summer days, whether he was in his Bay Area barbershop or sitting in the shade of the lemon tree in his backyard, he likely had an AM radio tuned into the game. In the era of Walkmans and CDs, I recall looking in wonderment at the unusual, well-aged electronic listening device my grandfather carried around with him. A plastic box slightly smaller than a Walkman with a wire dangling from it with an earpiece at the end. It was an AM radio permanently tuned to KNBR AM 680, the San Francisco Giants flagship station. The device was small and innocuous enough for my grandfather to tuck discreetly in his shirt collar while he taught his grandkids how to play seven card stud or cut our hair. The Giants games are broadcast on television by NBC Sports Bay Area TV, but I never remember my grandfather watching the game on TV.
I had a similar relationship with baseball broadcasts. After the Red Sox broke the curse of the Great Bambino in 2004, I was living in rural New England and found myself sucked into evening and afternoon radio broadcasts of games syndicated by the local radio station. I enjoyed listening to baseball. Two aging radio personalities who seemed to be phoning in from a black and white movie with light conversation that accompanied the ambient sounds of the game — organ music, screaming fans, the few calls umpires are required to verbalize. I listened to the broadcasts like Brian Eno suggests you should listen to his ambient music — actively or passively, depending on my mood in relation to my interest in whatever was coming through the speakers. This is also essentially the way I have experienced baseball games in person during the few occasions I have traveled to Citi-Field, where I would sit high in the bleachers with a friend, occasionally talking about all the ways in which the Mets suck, while finding other ways to verbally entertain ourselves and get along with other fans seated nearby.
Major League Baseball has about 100 million more fans worldwide than the NFL does. Yet the NFL makes over 1.5 times more money than baseball. Almost all of that revenue is from advertisements related to TV broadcasts. The Super Bowl alone — a 4 hour broadcast of the one-off championship game — has been generating around $600 million in ad revenue. By comparison, Fox has been pulling in less than $300 million for all seven games of the World Series.
The NFL is made for and by TV. A high drama affair, where men adorned in spandex and light armor attempt to out-muscle and outsmart one another in bursts of complex horseplay that occur over about six or seven seconds. A countdown clock has always been a part of the NFL and it creates suspense with every play. As football became more popular on TV, the NFL found creative ways to utilize the clock to both build suspense and create breaks in gameplay so more ads could be aired.
Unlike a marathon, which I would rather observe seated on some grassy knoll near the finish line while having a Mediterranean picnic with a few friends who also enjoy watching average athletes reach their limit and collapse in a pool of bodily fluids, the spectator experience of an NFL game only intensifies as broadcast technology improves. Since the advent of color TV in the 70s, an NFL broadcast has become increasingly dependable for a few hours of good TV.
Football is high stakes. The action is unpredictable, unrelentingly dangerous, and it occurs at an incredibly fast pace. During an important game, most fans will have their eyes glued to the TV even during a commercial break. The NFL broadcast has been designed in such a way that if a fan looks away for even a few seconds they could miss a play that forever changes the course of sporting history. During any given broadcast, a young unproven player could go on a hot streak that suddenly makes him a celebrity at the center of America's favorite game for the next decade to come. And on any given play, something could happen to that same player that would instantly end his career.
The amount of money and social status on the line makes football's element of danger both more nerve-wracking and more palatable. The official lexicon for both fans and NFL professionals alike is that we hate to see players get hurt. Unlike boxing, the violence of the NFL is obfuscated by the fan's desire to see payers succeed, have long careers with our favorite teams, break records, and give us a chance to wittiness extraordinary acts of athleticism which will be edited into short clips of video and made timeless as those captured moments are looped during live TV broadcasts every Sunday for the foreseeable future. The high chance for injury brings a great deal of excitement to the game and if there wasn't a chance that an instance of colliding bodies could leave a man broken and maimed, never able to play the game again, football would be suddenly far less exciting to watch on TV. The element of danger can be operatic, or even soap-operatic with the dramatic intensity it brings to each play. Indeed, the element of tragedy is not overstated. A player once died on the field during an NFL broadcast. Still, there is an element of hypocrisy and inherent insincerity with any statement made about how we who participate in NFL broadcasts do not ever want to see an NFL player injured. Perhaps if the statement is isolated from all else about the game, culture, and human nature, there is an element of truth in saying that most of us don't want to see an individual NFL player injured. But this negates the fact that the game would be far less interesting to watch if there was not a high probability of a player being injured.
The NFL overtook Major League Baseball as the most popular sport in the United States in the early 1970s. This was the same period of time when color TV set began to outsell black and white ones. The TV era of the late sixties and early seventies was also the height of Marshall McLuhan's popularity in the English-speaking world. The Canadian English professor and media theorist was granted frequent television audiences to perform free-falling lectures followed by question and answer sessions about his observations on media. McLuhan's ad-slogan-like writing style became embedded in the minds of television executives and ad creators, just as much as it did with TV and Movie critics. The most famous McLuhan slogan, The media is the message, was not lost on the executives, promoters, and sports broadcasters. Especially those involved with the two sports that profited immensely during the golden age of TV: football and boxing.
McLuhan was fascinated by instant replay. Before the innovation of an analog disk storage machine in 1965, instant replay was enormously inconvenient, and TV executives were wary of experimenting with expensive and unusual video recording machines during live broadcasts. Before 1965 there was one notable use of instant replay. On March 12th 1962, Cuban welterweight champion Benny Paret set out to defend his championship against Emile Griffith, a match that was broadcast live nationally by ABC. At the end of the twelfth round, Griffith unleashed a flurry of punches that left Paret unconscious, tangled in the ropes. The referee announced Griffith as the new champion as Paret continued to lay on the mat surrounded by medics. With broadcaster Don Dunphy attempting to reassure the TV audience that Paret would be okay, the camera stayed focused on Paret's head which was hemorrhaging blood. When the medics at last carried Paret out of the ring on a stretcher, there was still no sign of life in the 25-year-old athlete. His arms and legs dangled limply off the side of the stretcher. Likely feeling like the TV audience was left with too many questions to simply end the broadcast, Don Dunphy made the decision to replay the video of the match that had just been shot in slow motion while attempting to explain what had just occurred in the ring in a manner that would not reflect poorly on the sport of boxing. Ten days later Paret died in the hospital from massive hemorrhaging of the brain.
McLuhan said that the instant replay marked a "post-convergent moment in the medium of television." With the advent of instant replay, any new medium would contain prior medias within. Until the advent of instant replay, televised football simply served as a substitute for physically attending a game. If you dial up games from the late 1960s on YouTube, you get a vastly different visual experience than what you see today. Before instant replay, the look of a football broadcast was more like a baseball broadcast, with long shots of the field at a distance, a few shots of the fans in the stadium, and a camera framing the two men in the broadcast booth. There's no real evidence that the 1960s NFL television experience would be any better than watching a game live from the nosebleed section of the stands.
With instant replay, the NFL broadcast becomes an event unto itself that cannot be reproduced without TV. It is, in a way, a form of participation where the spectator is able to be in a position that is essentially as close to the game as the athletes themselves. Before instant replay, spectators were not in a position to judge whether or not a player had caught the ball with both feet in bounds, or if the ball crossed the plane of the goal line. We were all at the mercy of the referees to make a judgment that would contribute to the outcome of the game. With instant replay, outcome became less important than the experience of watching a looping five-second clip slowed down to the point where each of the 60 frames taken every second can be viewed one at a time. However, the outcome still contributes to the enjoyment of the game. If we read the score in the morning news before watching the broadcast, all the drama is eliminated from the game. To get the most out of the game it must be watched on TV in real-time, which makes it one of the few remaining great assets of live broadcast television.
Fans of the NFL will most likely think of instant replay as the element of the game where a referee is called upon to watch the looping slow-motion video clip and make the ultimate decision about the outcome of a play based on the information provided by the camera. However, this is only a minor aspect in the way watching the NFL has been changed by the ability to instantaneously edit and replay video from a live television broadcast.
During a three-hour NFL broadcast, there is about 11 minutes of actual gameplay. The other 180 minutes of the average NFL broadcast is taken up by broadcaster commentary, shots of the stadium and the surrounding areas, advertisements, and by and large video footage of highlights from the game that is actively being broadcast, which are edited on the fly in the broadcasting booth and layered with motion graphics, sped up and slowed down, and looped again and again, giving the feeling that we are watching a game, while in actuality we are merely transitioning from reruns into commercial breaks and back again. Furthermore, footage from old football games, showing the most iconic players from the history of each team performing at their highest level is also shown. The complete package of an NFL broadcast doesn't feel anything like 11 minutes to the NFL fan who is watching the game. A broadcast is magical in the way that it transcends the boundaries of time. It is the suffusion of the photographic universe with magical connections, magic aligning in this view with function, play, and repetition. The magical connections we see in a NFL broadcast, are the connections created by broadcast technology. What comes through the screen is not a product of the history of the world or of a game, but instead the magical power of images created by the image's preternatural ability to produce an experience outside of time. With an NFL broadcast this space that exists outside of time is an unending instant where an extraordinarily talented young man is permanently placed in a precarious position so that his next step could lead him to one of two places: to live a life eternally in the pantheon of America's most celebrated people. Or, into an arms reach of death, concussed, bones shattered, and unable to be an icon of anything except the pity of sports fans.
As far as Major League Baseball's decision to add a countdown clock to the game, I think they're a little late to the party. The other three big sports in the US have had the suspense of countdown clocks incorporated into the games for a half-century already. It's no secret that broadcast television is beginning to accrue irreparable damage due to the advancements of peer-to-peer connections across an endless amount of screens that populate the average person's daily life. Live sports is one thing that has not been fully replaced by the internet — although it is coming as streaming platforms like Amazon now have enough money to install the massive infrastructure it takes to broadcast a sporting event. Broadcast television will do everything in its power to hold on to the few places they have an advantage over streaming platforms — live sporting events, award shows, and the evening news being the only examples that come to mind.
However, with baseball, I think they're missing the point. Baseball is a 19th Century game. It's as much about the thrill of being social, staring at impeccably trimmed springtime grass, then it is about the highlight reels. With baseball, there's just not that much to look at. And even as instant replays and looping video highlights posted all over the sports pages bring us closer to the experience playing the game, is that where the average baseball fan wants to be? Standing in the batter's box while a pitcher under the pressure of a pitch clock winds up to through a 103-mile-per-hour fastball? Wouldn’t we rather have that experience in the backyard throwing a whiffle ball 5mph at our uncoordinated, young nieces and nephews? The baseball fans I know are more interested in obscure facts, like who had the most extra-base hits for the Red Sox while Roger Clemens was their number-one pitcher. Baseball fans enjoy the enormous amount of data that comes after playing 162 games in a season. There certainly is pleasure in seeing a walk-off home run in the 9th inning, but like long-distance running, that finish line is only crossed once during a three-hour broadcast, making the outcome of the game more interesting for the spectator, than the fantasy of participating at a professional level.
So then, I feel like I tricked people into reading an article about media by saying it was about sports. This isn't the case. I'm here for the game, and to prove it I will give you the most important part of a sports article: the controversial predictions of who will be this year's champions.
The Mets once again spent money like a freelance writer who just cashed his first big check in a while before going to Dimes Sq. to meet up with a couple of girls who love cocaine. Veterans Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer might appear like gallant bulls in the pasture, with plans for their statues in Cooperstown already being programmed for the 3D printer, but it won't last. With these two veterans, it's easy to imagine how the pitch clock rule could hinder their play, and the Mets will unravel by the end of August, just like they do every year. The Braves take the NL East and maybe even the NL Pennant baring above-par seasons from San Diego, Philly, or Saint Louis.
Aside from the Met's sucking, the other thing we can depend on is that the Yankees are rich. They'll hang around through part of the post-season, but both Toronto and Tampa have more heart than the Yankees and they will be easier to root for. The Astros are the best bet to win it all but don't count out the underdogs in the Midwest or West. Seattle, who returned to the postseason last year for the first time in 21 seasons, will be talked about as long as they are within reach of the Astros or a Wild Card spot.
As for the Beautiful Game — and to be clear, I'm talking about Basketball and not that sport some ultra-nationalist Europeans confusingly call football when the proper way to pronounce it is actually fútbol because the game is ruled by the Spanish-speaking world — in a perfect world, I would get to watch the Celtics come back from 0-3 deficit against the Heat to take Denver in 7. But I am a Boston sports fan, and therefore my world is far from perfect. So now, Jokić. Denver beats the Heat in 5.
And to wrap it up, I'll just make a short comment on everyone's favorite brain-damaged TV sports celebrities -- our heroes, the players and coaches of the National Football League.
The 49ers will be the best team in the league for the next three seasons. Brock Purdy will be their quarterback, and if he truly is as good as he looked last season — and coach Shanahan doesn't accidentally put him in a clown car full of dynamite and roll him off the cliffs of Mendocino — the 49ers could be good for a very long time.
Aside from the 49ers being great, Tom Brady will find some way to spend his late 40s other than playing quarterback. Unless it means taking the QB spot in New York away from Aaron Rodgers, just to be the league's most petulant prick of a GOAT QB one more time.
And finally, the Bills need to beat the Chiefs. They need to do it for Buffalo. They need to do it for New York State which has been lacking championships in every sport. And they need to do it for Vincent Gallo who will not stop edgelording on Instagram nor will he make another film until the Bills pull it together and wipe that smug smile off Patrick Mahomes' funny little face. Bills Niners Super Bowl, Bills win. Unless the Bills fall to Cincinnati or the Chiefs. Niners beat KC. Cincinnati is completely unpredictable. We still don't know how good Joe Burrow can be.
I'm going spend a few days watching that looping computer graphic depicting the way a human brain smashes into the front of the skull while an NFL player endures a tackle seen in the Netflix documentary about New England Patriots star tight-end cum serial killer, Arron Hernandez. Hopefully boxers Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk can agree to terms for a Heavyweight title match before too long, to give me another form of brain damage to study. I'll be back in a month or so to offer up my analysis of not only the brain injuries of boxers and football players but perhaps a bit of what we have to look forward to in the world of tennis, gymnastics, and synchronized swimming, all of which deserve more time on TV.