Some people say TV has ruined sport but there’s a strong case to argue that the opposite is true, writes Brendan O'Brien
If there’s one thing some people believe to be poxier than the random act of fashioning a career out of sportswriting then it’s that select group of journalists for whom pontification about the games we play is performed from the comfort of their own couches, remote control at the ready, and kettle constantly on the boil.
Yep, the TV sports critic has quite the life.
Not for them the intolerable toil of having to trudge out the front door to see top-class action unfold; the fretting over whether your seat (which probably isn’t even bang on the halfway line, goddamit!) comes with a TV for instant replays; or the nerve-shredding lottery that is the free pre-match grub and whether it is a delicious hot curry or a cold ham sambo.
Why bother when Tommy Martin can set the scene for you?
Look, nothing beats being there — we may have seen that on an ad once, as it happens — but there is undeniable value in those few lucky men and women who are paid — paid! — to sit on the sofa and write about Richie Sadlier’s thought on the PSV right-back, or how Pat Spillane was giving Joe Brolly daggers at half-time.
Your armchair critic can’t see whether Glenn Whelan is doing something extraordinary off the ball to explain those 84 Irish caps — spoiler: he doesn’t — but the extra distance from the action can, and often does, lend itself to a more dispassionate and considered view of proceedings.
Even better is the fact that so many manage it with such delicious traces of humour.
Few have been better than Martin Kelner who wrote a Guardian column about sport on TV for donkey’s years and whose 2012 book, Sit Down and Cheer: A History of Sport on TV, was a superb account of how two pillars of society that once viewed each other with suspicion came to embrace in a way that has spawned all sorts of unforeseen consequences.
One of those, according to Kelner, has been the manner in which prime-time progamming that once had less to do with sport than Declan Rice has with Martin O’Neill’s current Republic of Ireland squad has begun to resemble nothing so much as the English Premier League, the Ryder Cup, or the Formula 1 season in disguise.
We have, to be blunt, come a long way from Noel’s House Party.
The Great British Bake Off, Dancing with the Stars, Home of the Year: What are they if not rip-offs of a competitive format that was once reserved for World Cups, the All-Ireland championships, and that late-night indoor bowls programme that used to send us to sleep on BBC2?
Some people say TV has ruined sport but there’s a strong case to argue that the opposite is true.
It’s easy to see why and how it all came to this.
Sport simplifies everything.
Baking, as anyone who has tried mastering even a batch of cupcakes for a pair of sugar-deprived kids knows, is a difficult and complicated enterprise: Just try replicating that recipe you watched Donal Skehan whip up on the box if you’ve any doubts.
Adding the competitive element to it cuts through all that. Who cares if its a teaspoon or a tablespoon of cream soda you use? Will Samantha from Blackpool get that meringue finished before the clock runs out? This stuff can, in a strange and deeply unsettling way, be every bit as gripping as a Champions League penalty shoot-out.
This sportification of TV demands emotional investment. It transforms the viewer from passive onlooker into fervent supporter. Who, for instance, hasn’t had a favourite on Dancing with the Stars? Not me, actually. Never watched it, but you get the picture. This trigger to choose sides, to decide between ‘them and us’, just as fans do on the terraces, has become the norm.
This dumbing down and entrenchment behind a person, team or cause has been enabled further by the technological advances that gave us social media. Now our newly-discovered dedication to that adorable kid on X-Factor can be expressed in the most partisan and objectionable terms on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. “What do you mean you preferred the Peruvian mime artists, you prick?”
Nuance and debate have been elbowed to the margins, like a nippy but slightly-built winger. Truth is it’s exhausting having to care so much and so often. TV is meant to be a time for winding down, for dunking Ginger Nuts in our tea, although it will be a cold day in hell before we get exercised about live coverage of Valencia and Young Boys or the Europa League.
The consensus is that Netflix and hand-held devices and the like are killing what we all knew to be the traditional telly experience but sport’s colonisation of the magic box in the corner should take its own turn in the dock because, if it isn’t Juventus v Manchester United live from Turin, then it’s Man V Food from Randy’s Wooster St Pizza Shop in Hartford, Connecticut.
It’s time for TV to change the tune rather than the channel.
Email: email@example.com Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien
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