by Keith Aksel
Do you watch sports as an excuse to socialize with other people? Or do you treat socializing with other people as an excuse to watch sports? These kinds of questions can tell you a lot about the type of fan you are. The former type of fan can comfortably be called a “casual fan,” while the latter would be of the more “serious” persuasion.
But even among those in the “serious” category, it’s clear that fans take in the sports they watch differently. Serious fans carry with them a variety of what I call “intake perspectives” that dictate how they interpret sports contests. In other words, individual fans watch sports in ways that emphasize certain dynamics over others on a consistent basis. Depending on one’s intake perspective, fans may ignore some facets of a contest while fixating on others, all based on how a fan “reads” the events on the field. I have come up with an unscientific set of criteria (after all we’re historians at the Tattered Pennant, not scientists) that might help you determine what type of serious fan you are. There are three main categories of fan intake perspectives that I think sum up most of the serious fans out there. Which one are you?
The Analytics Freak
You view sports through the lens of statistics and odds. Betting lines and computation matter in your mind above all, so you see the outcomes of games as a matter of simple (or not so simple) math. The rather recent sports media tilt toward stat-based analysis through the development of new analytics devices like ESPN’s “Football Power Index” scratches you right where you itch. These devices give you more data to crunch and a better grasp of how to understand what might play out on the field. Some say Alabama’s fourth national football title under Nick Saban in 2015 came as a result of superior coaching and advanced training processes. You see it as the natural result of the Tide’s compiling a higher percentage of five-star recruits than their competitors. And you probably loved Moneyball.
The Tactics and Strategy Guru
You see sports as a chess match; opposing sides deploy plans devised on paper to real scenarios, and success is derived by deploying a superior strategy than one’s opponent. In team sports, matchups matter a great deal to you, and you watch the development of a soccer or football game by watching the individual personnel battles that make up the larger grand strategy. To you, soccer teams fail to win matches because their base 5-4-1 formation, for example, does not play to their personnel strengths. You believe that shifts in tactics dictate outcomes, not computer models or stats.
The Intangible Wonk
You see sports as a contest that cannot be easily boiled down to numbers or tactics. You seek complication in sporting events, watching the general ebbs and flows of a contest rather than individual matchups or metrics. To you, emotion, attitude, and chemistry matter more than formations or odds in dictating an outcome. Slippery and amorphous terminology like “momentum” mean everything when explaining the results of a contest. In your mind, twelve-seed Little Rock beat fifth-seed Purdue in the 2016 NCAA basketball tournament because of superior belief among players, rather than superior tactics or metrics.
There can certainly be some crossover among these three categories. Some fans might embody elements from more than one group; intangible wonks could sometimes find themselves acting like tactics and strategy gurus, and an analytics freak could think more like an intangible wonk when watching a specific sport. But, I think most of us would find a home within one category a majority of the time.
Individual sports might foster certain intake perspectives in their fans. For instance, fans who primarily love soccer may tend to view sports in general as tactics and strategy gurus do. Soccer commentators overwhelmingly preoccupy themselves with tactical concerns. Those fans whose first love was soccer may thus take a similar tactics-focused perspective to the other sports they watch as well. Baseball, it seems, breeds more analytics freaks thanks to the waves of metrics developed to measure players’ performance and effectiveness (a la Moneyball). Basketball may be a sport that produces more intangible wonks than others, due to ideas like the “hot hand” theory. The hot hand theory suggests that shooters start to “feel it” once they hit consecutive shots, which builds a force of momentum on its own, and allows that shooter to continue hitting shots regardless of previous performance (remember NBA Jam’s “He’s on fire” tagline?) Regardless if these sports actually produce the aforementioned intake perspectives, there may be a connection between specific sports and the type of fan it produces.
There are costs and benefits to all these intake perspectives, but none are objectively right or wrong ways to view contests. What’s more important is identifying your own tendencies, and to acknowledge how you understand how sports works. Your intake perspective then makes up a good deal of your sports worldview. It defines the way you understand how outcomes are reached, and what motivates certain things to happen in a given contest. So, go ahead and use this as an excuse to think more critically about sports-watching in your life. Go to YouTube, watch a clip of an old sports contest, and think about what you tend to fixate on during the game. If nothing else, you would prove your mettle as a true thinking fan. In that case, you would undoubtedly be one of us!