Sports better in person, or on TV?

Originally Published: August 3, 2009
By Jim Caple and Patrick Hruby | Page 2

JIM CAPLE: This is a tricky argument because it isn't a yes-no thing. Some sports are definitely better seen in person. Television doesn't begin to do hockey justice. Other sports are better seen on TV. The person lying on his couch watching golf or cycling on TV has an exponentially better idea of what's going on with the overall event than the schlub following one group of golfers or standing at some lonely stretch of road waiting for that exciting 15 seconds when the cyclists pass him.

So if you ask me whether sports are better on TV or in real life, I have to reply, "Which ones?"

That said, being at an event is almost always a more satisfying experience than seeing it on TV. I brought up golf and cycling as two sports that are much better on TV, and I'm sure you agree, Patrick. But if I asked you whether you'd like to see the Masters and the Tour de France in person or watch them on TV, I bet the remote control would be out of your hand and the suitcase out of your closet in a second.

PATRICK HRUBY: You're right. I'd have my suitcase packed in a second, passport in hand. Because I'd be heading to freaking France, where I wouldn't watch a single second of cycling.

Well, unless the Tour's final stage ran through the Louvre.

Look, bringing up the Tour is a bit disingenuous. So is mentioning the Masters. The former is more European vacation than sporting event; the latter is practically a holy pilgrimage for American golf dorks and anyone who owns seersucker anything. Both events are outliers -- unique, once-in-a-lifetime deals, far removed from the typical game-going experience.

Tell me if the following sounds familiar:

Fighting traffic. Getting hosed on tickets. Getting hosed on parking. Suffering drunken louts. Getting hosed on lukewarm chicken fingers and school-lunch-quality cheeseburgers. Enduring an audio-visual Normandy landing from the stadium P.A. and Jumbotron, all game long. Blinking back smoke from player introductions. Getting hosed on beer. Enduring the make-some-noise bleating of a one-named jackass stadium announcer. Having to pretend the mascot is charming, while secretly hoping he catches on fire. Trying to watch the cheerleaders without feeling creepy. Getting hosed on a bottle of water. Checking your swing at a bathroom urinal trough. Watching the CO2-propelled T-shirts land in some other section, yet again. Fleeing early to avoid fighting traffic. Getting stuck in a logjam anyway. Finally arriving home some five-plus hours closer to both death and having to wake up early for work, which itself is a little death all its own.

So yeah, as long as we're not talking about munching croissants on the Champs-Elysees, I'll cast my vote with watching sports on television.

And to think: I haven't even mentioned hi-def. Yet.

JC: Geez, Patrick. Does anything make you happy? Rather than argue with me, maybe you should provide a public service by standing outside stadiums wearing an Uncle Sam costume and a big sandwich board that reads: "Go home! You're all having a miserable time!" Wait, of course you won't do that. You would have to leave the Shire and enter a public area where there are, like, cars and buses and shops and restaurants selling food and other items for lots of money. Not to mention all those other people. Who wants to deal with that?

[+] EnlargeEvgeni Malkin and Darren Helm
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMost people agree hockey is a sports best viewed in person.

Sure, watching games on TV is cheaper and more convenient. So is staying in bed all day and letting the world pass you by. The point of life is to get out and do something -- even if by this era's standards, that means nothing more than getting out and watching other people do something.

Our big HD screens can show us close-ups so detailed we can count the steroid acne on a player's body, but what they can't convey is what it feels like to be there in person. Sports aren't just about watching the game; they're about being human and interacting with a community. They're about cheering and rooting and booing and making yourself heard. They're about participating -- whether that's cheering for Albert Pujols, or shouting so loud the other team takes a delay of game, or challenging David Beckham to a fight. I know it can be a hassle to get to a game. And the prices aren't cheap. But you pay it for the same reason you pay $39 for a perfectly prepared fillet of salmon that costs $7 a pound at the market. You pay it because the experience is richer. It's the same difference between watching a movie or play on TV and walking into a darkened theater and watching it with an audience, sharing and feeding off others' responses. It enhances the experience.

You may see the Masters and the Tour as outliers, but what about a day in the bleachers at Wrigley? A night at Fenway? An autumn afternoon at Michigan Stadium? You can put yourself into debt for decades with student loans, but I guarantee what you'll treasure most is that afternoon you sat in the cold, freezing rain with your friends, rooting and worrying over the outcome, your emotions rising and plummeting like a roller-coaster ride so thrilling there should be a cutout of Shaq saying you need to be "this tall" to take it. And then, feeling that outpouring of sheer joy when your team wins on a last-second score and you're sure that no matter how long you live, no matter whom you meet, you will always be friends with these people and always be able to say: Do you remember that day in the rain?"

Isn't it better to be able to say one day, "I saw LeBron James in person," rather than, "I saw LeBron James on TV"?

Or maybe not. Maybe you'd rather be able to say you sat on the couch so you didn't have to worry about checking your swing in the bathroom. What's up with that, anyway?

PH: What's up with that? Try standing between two morbidly obese men so drunk that alcohol is literally exiting their bodies in the form of flammable, beer-smelling steam sweat … on second thought, I'll spare you the details. I'll also spare responding to your fallacy -- your straw-man comparison between going to a midseason Wizards-Hawks game and staying in bed all day like a clinical depressive, and your mushy, gauzy talk of ballparks as cathedrals of feeling and experiencing and being human.

Are you already falling back on magical reasoning? Really? So soon? I'm disappointed. (Plus, you can find all of the above, plus cheaper beer, at a sports bar.)

Anyway, let's stick with empirical evidence. Exhibit A: Paying $39 for a piece of salmon does not ensure its perfect preparation. On the contrary, it simply ensures that you are paying $39 for a piece of salmon. Best salmon I ever had? My wife made it. At home. For free. In fact, there are many aspects of the sports-watching experience that are not only cheaper at home, but also better. To wit:

Instant Replay: Yes, they have it at the stadium; no, it's not as good as its television counterpart. Not when the home viewer gets six different angles on that controversial fourth-quarter pass interference call. Plus stat overlays, rule clarifications, and the sort of nitpicky, fetishistic frame-by-frame analysis usually reserved for the Zapruder film.

Oh, and all of the above goes for a 2-yard off-tackle plunge in the first quarter, too. Is this a great country or what?

Music: At home, you control whether "Jock Jams" makes it onto your iPod playlist; at the game, you're lucky to leave the building without hearing Vols. 1-5 in their entirety. Time was, canned music was confined to halftime. Then it seeped into timeouts. Now, something along the lines of "DUM-DUM … DE-FENSE" plays during each and every possession, like the soundtrack to "NBA 2K10." Which, if you're kicking back with your rec-room Xbox 360, can be turned off.

This is where I would normally mention the rise of the ubiquitous, annoying "Everybody make some noooooise!" one-named stadium P.A. guy. But that would just be piling on.

Color commentary: OK, I concede this one.

Sausage mascot races: OK, I concede this one, too.

Seating: If your couch is less comfortable than a folding plastic stadium seat, it's time to throw out your college futon.

The … view: Sad but true: Between their Joker-ish countenances and Kabuki-shaming makeup jobs, most pro cheerleaders are far more attractive from far, far away. If you like to watch, stay in your house. Don't spoil the illusion. Remember what happened to Roy when he got too close to his tiger? Exactly.

Food and drink: A few years back, Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno slashed the price of ballpark beer from $8.50 to $6.75 a pop. He nearly received a Nobel Prize. And the suds still cost $6.75. I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: This way lies madness. Then there's stadium food, bad for your wallet and your midsection. Man cannot live on steamed hot dogs and mini-pizzas alone. Especially when said pizza is largely indistinguishable from the cardboard box it comes in.

FYI: Places like Costco sell both peanuts and Cracker Jack. In giant tubs. Just sayin'.

People: Home is a place to invite your friends. The ballpark is a place to hope and pray you're not sitting near the guys for whom a New York Jets victory is the only barrier between just being drunk and "Mad Max."

The remote: Not merely the second-greatest invention of the 20th century -- after the bullpen car, of course -- but also the single best reason to stay home, particularly in the DVR era. With a single button press, you can flip through tedious timeouts, skip over dull stretches of play, even turn off a stinker of a game entirely.

And that's the other thing, Jim: You're always invoking the great game, the memorable experience. No argument from me -- great, memorable games are definitely worth attending. Problem is, a fan seldom knows beforehand which games are special and which games are utter dross. Meanwhile, the vast majority are closer to mundane than remarkable. Which means that watching on television is the smarter bet. And isn't ours a play-the-odds, sabermetric sports age? If Billy Beane were an enlightened fan, he'd dump his season tickets and buy a 60-inch plasma.

Uh-oh. I'm getting closer to playing the HD trump card. Consider yourself warned.

JC: Your trump card is going to be a two-dimensional image that for all its technological advances and hype, still only attempts (and fails) to be as lifelike as the real thing? Wow, now you've got me scared. Meanwhile, I don't know whether to congratulate you on having a wife who should compete on "Top Chef" (and don't you find it wild that Padma was married to Salman Rushdie?) or pass on my sympathies that you don't have a decent restaurant in your area.

[+] EnlargeHot Dogs
AP Photo/Ed BetzThe good news is, you get to eat hot dogs. The bad news is, you get ripped off paying for them!

Following your logic, we should never go to a ballgame (too expensive and too crowded), a restaurant (too expensive and not tasty enough), a concert (too expensive, too crowded, and the sound quality of the studio recording is superior to a live performance in a big arena), a party (all those people!), a public restroom (such crowds!) or anywhere we might come in contact with someone who has a blood alcohol content above .0000001 percent.

And I don't get why you offer a sports bar as an alternative. A sports bar is a mix of the worst elements of attending a game in person (expensive beer and food, very crowded) with none of the benefits of home viewing -- no couch, a bad view of the screen, no remote, and no audio to hear the commentary. And yes, I like hearing the commentary. I don't like all broadcasters, but most do a pretty darn good job and add to the experience. It's one area where watching the game at home is superior to being there.

But your other arguments? Let's look at them.

The … view: I agree with you on pro cheerleaders. They are total Monets. So why would I possibly want a close-up on HD? Better to watch them from a safe distance at a game.

Food and drink: Yes, the prices are ridiculous. I was just at Kauffman Stadium, where they charged $5.50 for premium bottled water. But you know what? You don't have to pay it! Just bring what you want from home. Most teams either let you bring in food or are so lax in their security checks that you could bring in a case of grenades with your peanuts.

People: Talk about using straw men! According to you, every single person at a stadium is a repulsive belligerent drunk who can't even urinate straight. Really? Well, then I suggest you sit somewhere other than the bleachers at Yankee Stadium or Fenway. Because while there are certainly louts at every game, my experience has been that the vast majority of people are just that: people. People watching the game, people cheering their team, and people having a good time. Some are senior citizens, some are 5-year-olds, and many are in between. In fact, some are young and attractive and willing to talk to you about the game.

The remote: Yes, being able to turn off a dull game or change channels is a definite plus. And I'll also admit that not all games are memorable. But as you point out, you never know. That's what makes each game different and special. You say I'm trotting out "magic," but what you call magic is what I call typical. No, not all games end with The Play or a Hail Mary or a Kirk Gibson walk-off blast. But most every game does reward you for your presence. Those feelings I cited for a memorable college football game? I feel them regularly at games of all quality. My friend Scooter and I still talk about the epic rain delay we sat through at Comiskey Park six years ago -- they put the tarp on and took it off four times before the first pitch -- and every time we do, we smile.

Furthermore, when you're at the game, you don't want a remote because it's a chance to forget everything else and concentrate solely on the game without being distracted. You don't have to hear your spouse telling you to change the channel, or the kids whining about going to the mall, or your spouse asking how many beers you've had and how much weight you've gained and how you need to mow the lawn and clean the gutters and wash the dishes. Nor do you have to watch the commercials for male performance enhancers. For all the Jock Jam decibels you (and I) loathe, the stadium is still a place where you can be at peace.

Plus, you can work on your tan.

That's why, as much as I enjoy watching sports on TV, I prefer going to the game in person. Yes, it's more of an investment than flopping down on your couch. And sometimes it isn't worth it. But when it pays off? Man, you're glad you put up with the parking, the price and the hassles to be able to say, "I was there."

PH: You're missing my point. I'm not saying that we shouldn't go to any games, ever, or get out of the house, ever -- and by the way, do I look like a crow? Because you keep dragging that straw man out, and frankly, I'm about to set him ablaze -- or that attending a great game isn't powerful and wonderful and worth the attendant trouble. Even if you're sitting among Philadelphia Eagles fans and end up getting pepper-sprayed.

No, all I'm contending is that on average, in the aggregate, overall, the at-home experience beats the in-stadium experience. For all the reasons I've so masterfully delineated, the same reasons you've so feebly assailed. (For instance, your food argument -- do you really think it's possible to sneak more than one foot-long meatball sub into a game? If so, please send me the schematics.)

Anyway, I think it's clear -- and I think we can agree -- that there's no way either one of us is going to be persuaded here. We're just too different. You're a sports romantic. I'm a cynic. You're the kind of guy who really likes television commentators and still waxes fondly about sitting through an epic rain delay. I'm the kind of guy who would donate a non-vital organ to get around ESPN's rules regarding TV commentator criticism and thinks of baseball rain delays as comparable to being stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the DMV. You see the proverbial warm cup of overpriced ballpark beer as half-full, and potentially an amazing emotional keepsake; I see the same cup as half-empty. Like my wallet.

As such, let's try to find common ground where we can -- namely, on the question you posed early on: Which specific sports and events are better in person, and which are better from the couch?

Here's my partial list, along with some thoughts. See what you think:

Better In Person

Any playoff game in any sport: Highest probability of experiencing those powerful collective emotions that render fandom so fun. (Atlanta Braves games excluded.)

NBA, first couple of rows: Don't go for the collective emotion -- the stadium P.A. announcer and piped-in music will pummel you into submission by the end of the first quarter -- but rather for the mind-blowing levels of size, speed, skill, athletic ability and economy of motion, none of which translates to television. If you stupidly think college kids play harder or with more fundamentals, you've never sat courtside at an NBA game. And that includes the Knicks.

[+] EnlargeDuke Fans
AP Photo/Sara DavisDuke-UNC at Cameron Indoor Stadium must be experienced in person to fully appreciate it.

College basketball rivalry game in an on-campus gym: A total rush; better still, it's the sport and situation in which fans can have the biggest impact on the action below.

Professional men's tennis: Much like the NBA, the television watcher simply has no idea what he's missing. None. In person, pro tennis is faster, more physical, and far more punishingly violent than the game you think you know and love.

NCAA tournament first/second round: Six games over two days, all of them potentially great, plus student sections and marching bands and everyone banding together to cheer against the higher seeds (unless it's Duke playing somewhere close to Durham, again). There isn't a better deal in sports.

Greek league basketball: Two words: rescue flares.

Better On Television

Any football game where you are not a die-hard fan of the home team: Not worth the time and trouble. And if you're a die-hard fan of the road team, not worth potentially getting your butt kicked.

Any regular season college basketball game held in a pro arena: Smothers the college game's all-important ambience with a chloroform-soaked towel.

The Final Four: Eradicates the college game's all-important ambience with a tactical nuclear device.

The U.S. Open (tennis) from the top of Ashe Stadium: Like watching a match played at the bottom of the Grand Canyon while sitting on the Outer Rim.

JC: Good calls. I agree with you on almost all, and add these:

Better On Television

The Super Bowl: I'd rather sit between your mythical drunks urinating on me than between two CEOs who don't give a damn about the game, the teams or anything beyond their bonus checks. Plus, you don't get to see the commercials.

Any golf tournament other than the Masters, the British Open or Pebble Beach.

Cycling: Unless you're at a mountaintop finish with 100,000 of your new closest friends who are very happy to share.

Most Olympic sports: Too often, you're just too far from the action. But being at the Olympics? Still the No. 1 experience in sports.

Better In Person

Any sporting event on a college campus.

Hockey: You can actually see the puck.

Horse racing: Why watch it if you can't bet on it?

Volleyball: For the same reasons you list for the NBA. And I'm not just talking the beach variety, though obviously that one as well.

Spring training: Is there any point to watching a spring training game unless you need to put on sunscreen?

Baseball: Being there allows you to take in the whole view of the field and enjoy the pastoral feel … wait, I'm getting too romantic again, right?

Well, it's time to finish up anyway. And in doing so, Patrick, for all our arguments and insults, can we at least agree that the America's Cup is not worth watching on TV or in person?

PH: Affirmative. Unless you're a bored tycoon with money to incinerate and a boat in the race, in which case, Godspeed. (And drink plenty of liquor.)

Jim Caple and Patrick Hruby are columnists for Page 2.

Jim Caple | email

ESPN Senior Writer
Author of "The Devil Wears Pinstripes" and winner of a Sports Emmy. Reported from 17 World Series, 9 Olympics, 6 continents.