Not too long ago, on Twitter, I suggested that the “reality gap” between NBA basketball on television and NBA basketball live might be the biggest out of all of our favorite sports. Because Twitter only allows 140 characters, I never did get around to explaining what I meant by “reality gap.” But the great thing is: The argument began raging pretty much right away.
“I still vote for hockey,” my buddy and SI wunderkind Michael Rosenberg said.
“You know, really high end tennis, in person, is probably on that list,” the excellent Bruce Arthur added.
“NHL by a mile,” said WagerMinds.
“Gotta vote hockey (if ‘reality gap’ means what I think it means),” co-habitant of Sports on Earth Emma Span responded.
And so on. I have to say: I love it. It is fun to argue about stuff when nobody even knows what we’re arguing about.
It seems that many people thought — not without good reason — that I was referring to the gap between the EXPERIENCE OF WATCHING a sport live and watching a sport on TV. That, actually, was not what I meant. I’ll explain in some detail what I mean by reality gap in the next couple of days, when I write about one of my favorite NBA players. Basically I’m referring to the gap between what a player THINKS the games would be like and what the games are ACTUALLY like.
But the gap people were talking about — let’s call it the “Exhilaration Gap” between watching a sport live and watching it on TV — is almost certainly a more interesting topic. Here, then, are the Top 10 sports by Exhilaration Gap. I even put a little score by each sport: +100 means the sport is boundlessly better live, -100 means the sport is boundlessly better on TV. And, you should know, these numbers were carefully calculated and recalculated in the time when I wasn’t checking to see if any baseball news was breaking at the winter meetings.
1. Hockey (+77 EG)
The obvious choice. The thing is, live hockey is not just a better sport to watch and consume, it’s really a DIFFERENT sport. Hockey on television has actually gotten much better (this would have been 100 EG before high-def and better camera work made hockey on TV an improved viewing experience). But there seems no way for hockey on TV to capture the speed and force and openness of the game. Especially the openness. The rink is much bigger than television can capture, and the players are skating much faster, and while television (for obvious reasons) must follow the puck, when you are a live participant the eye scans the entire landscape, seeing the open man before the puck gets there, anticipating the breakaway before it happens, observing just how fast these players are moving BEFORE the collision.* Television, for all its wonders, can’t quite get at the stuff that makes hockey so much fun to watch.
A general formula: The volume of how much someone does not like hockey corresponds precisely to how few times that person has seen a live hockey game.
*I do not know nearly enough about hockey to throw out a theory — I would ask Bruce Arthur or Chris Jones or Tom Tango or one of the many real hockey people out there — but I’ll throw one out there anyway: It occurs to me that one thing television DOES DO well with hockey is celebrate goaltending. I am not suggesting that television overemphasizes goaltending … I don’t know enough about it. But I do think that one thing television does do well is zero in on the goalie and amplify the incredible saves he can make with different angles and slow motion technology. This makes television sense to me — goalies are relatively stationary, so the camera does not have to follow them around the rink. The goalie’s main job is stark and sharply defined — KEEP PUCK OUT OF GOAL — and television does its best work in blacks and whites, rights and wrongs, ins and outs. Television isn’t as good (none of us are, really) with subtlety, shades and open space.
2. High-level soccer (+63 EG)
Let’s just call it World Cup-level soccer. On television, the sport can often look slow, plodding and somewhat claustrophobic. You really cannot get a sense of just how big the pitch is, how fast the players and ball are moving, how coordinated the efforts are. I was stunned when I went to the World Cup. I had watched a lot of soccer and been to many matches through the years. But this really was an entirely different thing.
The Hockey General Formula is at least as true for high-level soccer.
3. NBA basketball (+49 EG)
It is only live that you understand just how big the players really are, how violent their collisions, how skilled they are. I’ve said this before to friends (and this is another good pointless-argument starter): I think NBA basketball players might be the best at what they do in all of sports. NBA basketball is good on television — especially the fourth quarter — because television is great at capturing tension and facial emotion and can take us inside the huddle. But it can just cannot quite transmit how huge Dwight Howard really is or how quickly Tony Parker gets up the court.
4. High-level tennis (+37 EG)
Tennis is amazing live … but in some ways it’s for the opposite reason hockey is. In tennis, you cannot believe how SMALL the court is. The players hit the ball with such ferocity, and to keep it on the court they have to put on violent spins — the television camera simply cannot pick that up. And television flattens out the scene so you can’t quite see the dimensions, can’t quite see how impossible it is to chase down a drop shot or just how miraculous the geometry of some of the angled shots. That said, if you watch a game live you probably don’t get to hear John McEnroe or some of the other excellent tennis announcers, who I think might add more to the experience than color commentators in any other sport.
5. Championship boxing (+26 EG)
If you like boxing, you already know: Television cannot quite capture the chilling violence of it all. I’ve never been to an MMA event, but I imagine it is doubly or triply true there.
6. College basketball (+24 EG)
I think — let’s face it, this is all just what I think — television does a better job with college basketball than pro basketball. I think that’s because college basketball is less about extraordinary athleticism and skill and more about emotion and pageantry and spirit … and I think television does better with these things. I have watched the Final Four from inside the arena and from my rec room chair. There are great parts of both. If I’m a passionate fan of a team, I’d probably rather be in the arena. But if I just want to watch a good game — that’s a really tough choice.
7. Baseball (+19 EG)
I tend to disagree with a lot of people on this — I think baseball is a terrific television sport. I might even argue that television has baseball so down that the pure viewing experiences are pretty close to equal. There are unquestionably things that you can see live that you can’t see on TV — how far an outfielder runs for a ball, how impossible it really looks to hit a 100-mph fastball, how cool a triple really is. If you are sitting right behind home plate, you can definitely get a better feel for the players — scouts could not do as well with television.
On the other hand, I think television I does a better job of spotlighting the hitter-pitcher confrontation, and baseball still doesn’t want to show up the umpires by showing infuriating replays in the stadiums.
The reason I have baseball as a plus-EG isn’t so much about watching the game itself but the fun of being at the ballpark on a summer day, the food and drink, the easy pace, the family connections, the memories and all that.
8. College football (+4 EG)
Football, I think, is just better on television. But college football is still enough of a fan experience that I rate going to the game as slightly more exhilarating than watching it on TV. But only slightly and only because of the college passion. As you will see, I don’t feel the same way about pro football …
9. Pro football (minus-16 EG)
In my mind, pro football is superior on television in almost every way. No, television cannot quite convey how loud the stadium gets, the passion (or anger) of the fans, the dimensions of the field. But to me, it more than makes up for these things with amazing replays, numerous angles, in-game updates, interesting announcing (when you can get it) and cameras that almost put you on the field. I’ve also heard from many, many people that the pro football live experience is becoming less and less fun, there’s so much rage, so many fights or near fights, it’s no place to bring your kids. I used to be an NFL season-ticket holder, and I thought it was getting awfully chippy even four or five years ago. People tell me it’s even worse now. For all this and more, I’d much rather watch the games on television.
10. Golf (minus-26 EG)
And here — it’s no contest. Television crushes Live. Yes, it’s fun to go to a golf tournament because you walk around outside, the scenery is nice. You can wear your golf shoes and imagine how you would play a certain hole. For hardcore golfers, yes, I can absolutely see the appeal. And for people who just want to be out in the sun all day, I can appreciate that too. Also, television cannot quite give you the topography of the course — how steep the hills are and so on.
But if you go to a golf tournament, you don’t see much of anything, and you have to stay quiet, and you will get ordered around by power-mad caddies or particularly animated volunteers. Yes, you might (might being the key word) see Tiger Woods hit a ball, but you don’t see where the ball lands. You might see Tiger Woods putt out, but you only have to guess how he got there. Television can not only show you every shot, it can tell you which way a putt might break, Johnny Miller can chastise better than any announcer on TV, and TV can slow down a golfer’s swing with the Konica Minolta John Travolta Usain Bolta Churchill at Yolta 12 volta It’s nobody’s folta biz-viz-whiz hub swing vision quest camera. Which is awesome.
Also receiving votes: Gymnastics (minus-74); Horse Racing (plus-58); Track and Field (minus-3); The Biggest Loser (minus-87), Swimming (minus-37); Auto racing (0 — equally good on television and live for different reasons).