Filming not watching: is digital distraction changing how we experience live sport? | Barry Glendenning | Sport


Asked recently at a press conference why he thought attendances at National Collegiate Athletic Association football games were in decline, the Northwestern University coach Pat Fitzgerald posited an intriguing, if slightly odd theory. Picking up his mobile and waving it in the air before reporters, he proceeded to lay the blame squarely at the door of technology. “I think phones,” he said. “I think technology has been the decline in attendance, No 1.”

Fitzgerald went on to tell the story of being out with his wife for a meal and being irritated by the sight of all four members of the two couples at the next table spending their entire evening staring at and playing with their smartphones instead of talking to each other and suggested that younger sports fans are incapable of enjoying anything without the aid of technology.

“You watch a concert and everybody’s holding their phone up,” he said in exasperation. “Like, listen! Watch! Take it in! Create a memory! Because they don’t go back and watch the videos. They just want to post it on their social media. Which is pathetic because it creates a society of ‘Look at me! Isn’t my life great?’.”

Old man yells at cloud, Abraham Simpson style? Perhaps, although Fitzgerald’s response to the query posed came across as more reasoned rationale than curmudgeonly rant. He did, however, overlook the fairly obvious and contradictory point that to be in a position to film footage at a concert or ball game for one’s Instagram account, a fan actually has to be there in the first place, a state of affairs that ought to lead to more bums on seats, not fewer.

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He did, however, go on to say that youngsters these days would “rather have 12 TVs set up in their TV-watching cave than go to a game and experience the pageantry and tailgating”. Posted online, the clip of Fitzgerald’s broadside against modern technology has since been seen more than two million times and counting, presumably by a majority of people going some way towards proving his point by watching and listening to it on their phones.

Reaction to the two-minute clip has been predictably mixed. Rick Tarsitano, a sports producer with Chicago-based TV station WGN-TV, who posted it on Twitter said he “couldn’t agree more”, a view that was endorsed by the college sports podcaster Aaron Torres, who was instrumental in it going viral.

Sports Illustrated, in stark contrast, portrayed Fitzgerald, who is 44, as some sort of Luddite, making the not unreasonable point that “the home-viewing experience is a far superior experience than attending a game when it comes to football and it has nothing to do with iPhones.” Writing for the magazine’s website, Jimmy Traina cited cold weather and the prohibitive expense of attending NCAA games where punters are often forced to endure the braying of boorish, misbehaving drunks as the real reasons why attendances are falling. His was a view shared by many on Twitter.

Whatever your thoughts on the merits of Fitzgerald’s grumble, he is undeniably astute in his assessment that the smartphone has revolutionised the viewing habits of sports fans. Attendances at top-flight football grounds have rarely been healthier but the huge number of fans who seem to view the stadium as little more than a film set full of unpaid extras on which they can record social media productions in which they play the starring role is increasingly apparent.

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Not content with going to the ground to see the football match, they must also be seen seeing the football match. Remember that Liverpool supporter holding up his phone to record his role in the stirring rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone during their Champions League semi-final comeback against Barcelona? While his was an utterly harmless wheeze, the vitriol with which the sight of his impromptu movie-making was greeted by fellow football fans on social media was telling. Like coach Fitzgerald, they felt he should have been listening, watching, taking it in and creating a memory.

Of course, the scouse Spielberg could legitimately argue that such “bah humbuggery” is ridiculously over the top as it’s not every day you get to capture your part in such a special and rare occasion on film, but even the crushingly mundane has become apparently essential viewing. Pitchside, the sight of fans living their sporting life through a lens has become so commonplace that scarcely a throw-in or corner can now be taken without dozens of amateur filmmakers in the immediate vicinity recording them on laptops or smartphones for posterity.

Away from the stadiums, technology has also revolutionised the way fans watch football, not least because the evolution of Twitter means that any incident of note in any game is almost immediately accessible for public viewing. Few, beyond the most devoted would have sat down in front of the television for the entirety of Liverpool’s pre-season friendly against Sevilla at Fenway Park last Sunday, but we’ve all seen the comically wild tackle on Yasser Larouci that earned Joris Gnagnon a red card.

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With attention spans understandably shortening as the various forms of football distraction – clipped highlights, pre- and post-match analysis and reaction, impromptu tours of Jesse Lingard’s Miami hotel suite – vying for our focus continues to mushroom, a generation has reached a point where it is easy for them to stay completely apprised of what is going on in the world of football without having to do anything so time-consuming as watch an actual game.



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