U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Postmodernity on Ice

Last Thursday night I went to a hockey game for the first time in my life.  It was great.   Hockey is a fun sport to watch.  (And no, I didn’t just watch it for the fights, which were minor and few.) 

Because it was a weeknight game, when play started, most of the seats in the arena were empty.  So I got to hear what hockey sounds like:  the clack of the stick slapping the puck, the bang and clatter of skates, knees, elbows, helmeted heads slamming into the boards, and — wonder of wonders! — the shoosh of a player’s blades slicing sideways across the ice when he comes to a quick stop.  Though many of our readers probably grew up hearing these sounds, I had never heard them before.  It was a revelation.

And, for a first-timer, this was an especially good game.  It was tied 3-3 at the end of regulation, went to overtime, and then went to a shootout.  The Dallas Stars scored on their last shot, and then their goalie blocked the San Jose Sharks’ only chance of tying it up.  It was exciting.

But the game itself was only part of the spectacle.  A sports contest — one team versus another — comes embedded within a larger performance in which the spectator is also in some ways a participant.  Perhaps this has always been the case to some degree:  the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, a call and response as old as the game.  And there’s a sense in which a sporting contest is substitutionary or representative — a ritualized combat in which the competitors represent or embody or enact the aspirations and anxieties of the spectators.  But sport as a spectacle that blurs — or pretends to blur — the line between participant and observer seems to have taken a peculiarly Postmodern turn.  Athletes no longer perform for us; increasingly, they perform with us.

For team sports played inside a stadium or an arena — baseball, basketball, football, hockey — the giant video screen out in center field or suspended above the ice or looming over almost the entire length of the football field becomes a two-way picture window through which audience members can both see and be seen.  A pitching change, a time out, the end of a quarter or the end of a period — these are times during the game when the stadium cameras start to pan the crowd, looking for cute kids or decked out fans or dancing women or (heterosexual) kissing couples or rowdy college students to ham it up for the camera and the crowd. 

These mini-dramas of boisterous fandom, interleaved with live shots and replays of the drama on the field, turn observers of the game into participants in an entertainment event.  These fans’ performance can be intentional — hamming and mugging for the camera — or completely un-self-conscious.  In the latter case, the camera will sometimes linger on the subject until someone around him or her points up to the video screen.  Then the crowd gets to witness the moment when the unsuspecting spectator embarrassedly or enthusiastically embraces the unexpected role of performer.  These fans-realizing-they-are-on-camera moments are almost a genre unto themselves.

Nevertheless, there is still a fundamental difference between a fan’s image on the screen and a fan on the field.  But the lines of that difference are blurring.

Dot Racing, for example, has (unfortunately) come a long way from its debut in the 1980s as a mindless, gimmicky video graphic meant to entertain the fans at Arlington Stadium.  The phenom spread to other stadiums and other sports. 

Now the inanity that is Dot Racing has taken us down the rabbit hole.  I have attended minor league ball games featuring “live dot racing” or “human dot racing.”  The home team’s promotional office chooses fans from the stadium to dress up in giant “dot” mascot costumes and race around the base path as the crowd cheers.  I have yet to see this happen in a major league stadium, but perhaps one of our readers has witnessed this strange transformation of sideline spectators into on-field competitors.

At the hockey game I attended this past week, the breaks after the first and second periods featured some form of “on ice” contest between fans.  After the first period, we were treated to a race between “human hamsters.”  Three giant inflatable balls, each with a helmeted hockey fan inside it, were pushed out onto one end of the ice.  The fans had to race down to the other end of the ice, go behind the goal, and come back to the starting line.  The PA announcer in the booth provided live commentary for the cheering crowd.

After the second period, the spectacle was slightly more elaborate.  Four fans dressed as giant bottles of Bud Light had to race around some pylons, run behind the far goal,  come back across the ice, pick up a hockey stick, and knock a puck into the starting goal. 

This is harmless fun — unless you’re the life-sized beer bottle who does a faceplant, as one of the contestants on Thursday night did.  I’m sure he had to sign a waiver first — besides, if he enjoyed enough of the product he was cajoled into promoting, it probably didn’t hurt him much at the time anyhow. Of course, part of the fun for the crowd watching these kinds of contests — human dot races, three legged races, human hamster wheels, anthropomorphic beer bottles toddling and teetering around a rink — is the expectation that somebody is going to bite the dust…or the ice. 

But I can’t help wondering what it means that the professional playing field has become — if only momentarily —  the spectators’ playground.  Is this a New Thing in sports?  If so, how new is it?  How did it come about?  And where is it headed next?  How does the “performance” of fans feed off of or feed into the performance of the athletes who are (presumably) the reason the fans are there in the first place? 

Extraordinary talent, discipline and skill — and extraordinary paychecks — separate professional athletes from those who watch them play.  Is the growing phenomenon — or at least the growing visibility — of participatory fandom a way of leveling the playing field?

But if the playing field is leveled between athletes and their spectators, then what is the future of the game?

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Perhaps the sense of the playing field between athletes and fans being “leveled” is just as artifical as all the gimmickry of contests between innings, periods, etc. After all, the minimum contracts for the four major sports put even the twenty-fifth man on the roster in the 1%. Admittedly, in the NFL no contract is guaranteed, but if you’ve banked a decent signing bonus you’re in good shape. And in baseball, the average salary is in the $2-3 million range.

    So while in some senses athletes and fans are closer than ever, thanks to the omnipresence of our celebrity-culture media and the proliferation of dedicated sports media (hello, ESPN), in others they’re further away from the average fan than ever. Players in MLS often work regular jobs in the off-season because their salaries are so meager (and not just in sports terms but in real terms; a grad student with a generous stipend makes more than an MLS scrub, or did a few years ago). We’re only a few decades removed from when that was true for players in baseball and the NFL. The advent of free agency in sports is one of America’s great labor revolutions, but one that hardly gets remarked upon in comparison to the rest of American labor history. I’d put Marvin Miller up there with the likes of Samuel Gompers, Walter Reuther, John L. Lewis, but in comparison he’s wholly obscure.

    If your argument about postmodernism in sports has any purchase, it’s in the idea that these intermittent spectacles (mites on ice, half-court shots to win a car, kiss cams) have become integral to the experience of sports themselves. A sporting event is itself a spectacle, but the idea has taken hold, no doubt driven by the marketing departments (who drive everything), that that spectacle isn’t enough and therefore other spectacles are necessary to keep the interest of fickle sports fans whose attention spans are comparable to that of fleas. That’s postmodernism for you, where one spectacle exists merely as a vehicle for other spectacles.

  2. (cont’d.)

    But which spectacle is promoting which? Is a Dallas Stars game merely a venue to promote the advertisers who pay money to get their logos on the dasher boards (and I can remember, when I first fell in love with hockey a quarter-century ago, that several arenas had blank boards), or who sponsor the intermission contests, or the arena itself? As all these other spectacles pile on, the main spectacle itself – the game! – recedes into insignificance. It’s just programming to fill empty hours on your TV network (which is why Ted Turner bought the Atlanta Braves) or to put commercials around. We have to talk about the Super Bowl in this regard, America’s biggest spectacle, where the commercials that fill the gaps between the game receive more attention than the game itself, or so it seems. Apart from a few ads, no one can remember a Super Bowl commercial a week later, but a week later that $4 million for thirty seconds price tag has been repaid dozens of times over.

    The old Boston Garden not only had no video screen, it didn’t even have an organ, that’s how hostile its tenants and management were to the creeping “entertainmentization” of sports. You came to see the game, to see Bill Russell and Bobby Orr. You did not come to see someone trying to win a car. Now, you come to win a car, and if you’re lucky, maybe Sidney Crosby will score a goal.

    “But I can’t help wondering what it means that the professional playing field has become — if only momentarily — the spectators’ playground. Is this a New Thing in sports? If so, how new is it? How did it come about? And where is it headed next?”

    The answers are: Yes, yes, within the last thirty years, because of free agency and cable TV, and always in motion is the future. But here’s your postmodernity on ice. It’s all just a spectacle being used to sell other spectacles. The professional playing field has always been the spectators’ playing field. But now so is the amateur playing field thanks to the BCS and the NCAA tournament and the Olympics. But the closer fans get to the spectacle, the further, one may argue, sport gets from them.

  3. p.s. This will be controversial, but some of those non-sports spectacles were instituted to attract women, whose lack of a Y-chromosome was held to render them incapable of appreciating sports in the same way or to the same extent as someone who possessed said genetic material. That’s not the whole of it, of course, but when you’re spending so much money to get your product on the ice (and on the boards), you need to get as many people in the seats/watching on TV as you can. Which means women, who’ve always been regarded as more casually interested in sports than men. But the gender discussion is for another day.

    p.p.s. Hockey rules. Best. Sport. Ever. That is all.

  4. The gender discussion is for today, since you brought it up.

    The suggestion that dot racing, the crowd cam, fan-performed sideline spectacles, etc., came into vogue in order to provide something to entertain the ladies at the stadium is not one that had occurred to me. Nor would it.

    Generally, it seems to me that all of these side spectacles are designed to entertain people who are not coming to the game to watch the game. I suppose that demographic might include a disproportionate number of women. But if dot racing didn’t appeal just as well to the men in the stands — who presumably account for a disproportionately large amount of in-stadium spending — it wouldn’t be up there.

    And I’ll tell you what else wouldn’t be up there: dancing women. Who knew that a hockey game would feature tanned, toned dancers with pom poms! That, and “ice girls” in spandex pants and cropped tops skating out at intervals (maybe on commercial breaks?) to sweep up the ice in front of the goals.

    Cheerleaders/dancers for sports are part of the (hypermasculinized heteronormative) spectacle. I have seen them at football and basketball games. And if you watch a boxing match on HBO or Showtime you’ll see the “ring girls” climb up into the ring between rounds and walk around holding up a placard announcing the round number. But I never expected a professional dance team at a hockey game. I’m not sure why.

    Is baseball the only major professional sport left that doesn’t feature some equivalent of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders? If so, is that possibly because baseball has historically attracted more women fans than these other sports? Has a baseball stadium been a comparatively less homosocial space than other sports venues?

    That’s not a hypothesis, but it is an honest question.

    And if your suggestion is correct — dot racing is there for the ladies — I wonder if there’s a connection between the (presumable) demographic shift that puts more women in the stands at sporting events and the (presumable) performative transformation that finds more opportunities to put women’s bodies on display as part of the spectacle.

  5. “That, and ‘ice girls’ in spandex pants and cropped tops skating out at intervals (maybe on commercial breaks?) to sweep up the ice in front of the goals.”

    Or as I like to call them, the ice floozies. Totally sexist, I know, but really, what else are they? At any rate they are a new phenomenon. I think they started with the expansion teams in the Sun Belt and migrated north. I’m not sure all arenas have them. The Capitals ice crew, at least when I lived in DC, consisted of arena workers assisted by kids who must have won that privilege somehow. The Flyers, on the other hand, well, I swear their outfits have gotten skimpier if that’s even possible. : http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/multimedia/photo_gallery/1102/nhl-philadelphia-flyers-ice-girls/content.1.html

    I agree that dot racing (or sausage racing, or president racing, or whatever) has to appeal to both men and women in the stands. But I do think this assumption that sports is a guy thing and that the women who come with them need to be entertained in other ways or they won’t come, is one of those impressions that dies a hard death. I’ve never noticed a great disparity in the sexes at the games I’ve been to, but most teams do have marketing efforts tailored to women who aren’t fans or only casually interested. For example, the Capitals had something called Hockey 101 where women could learn the rudiments of the game. (Of course, given the Caps’ fanbase, plenty of the male fans could use the same instruction.) NFL teams have had programs for football widows.

    “Is baseball the only major professional sport left that doesn’t feature some equivalent of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders? If so, is that possibly because baseball has historically attracted more women fans than these other sports? Has a baseball stadium been a comparatively less homosocial space than other sports venues?”

    For the most part, the answer to the first question is, Yes. But mostly I think that’s mostly because of the way the game is configured. There are no sidelines where you can put cheerleaders as the whole surface is in play, and the timing rules make it difficult for cheerleaders to perform their routines. That said, several teams have moved in that direction. The Tampa Bay Rays have something like a cheerleader squad, the Phillies ball girls (they track down foul balls) are for the most part pleasant on the eye (though they have to have a softball background, so looks aren’t the only criterion). And as I learned this week watching on television, the ball girls at the Phillies’ spring training stadium are, you guessed it, real live Hooters Girls. So as I said, baseball is getting there. http://bleacherreport.com/articles/367990-the-hottest-cheerleaders-in-baseball

    I don’t think the lack of cheerleaders is because of baseball having more female fans. It probably has to do with the reasons I enumerated above and the fact that historically baseball didn’t need them or have them. Cheerleaders have always been a football thing, and then they crept into basketball, where they are even more sexualized, if that’s possible. (I swear some of the routines the Wizards dancers did were just short of soft-core porn.) And as for homosocial space, I can’t answer that one since I’m not sure what that means.

    “And if your suggestion is correct — dot racing is there for the ladies — I wonder if there’s a connection between the (presumable) demographic shift that puts more women in the stands at sporting events and the (presumable) performative transformation that finds more opportunities to put women’s bodies on display as part of the spectacle.”

    Possibly, or it could be because football has cheerleaders, and in this country football is king. And imitation is of course the sincerest form of flattery (and trying to make a buck). So it shouldn’t be any great surprise that the hockey team that plays in the same market as the Dallas Cowboys has cheerleaders of its own.

  6. Anyway, I do think dot racing is there in part for the ladies. But mostly it’s there because of the conviction that the audience must be kept entertained at every minute or you’ll lose them. Hence the need for spectacle within spectacle. If that’s not postmodern, I don’t know what is.

  7. You call the “ice girls” at the hockey rink “ice floozies”? I wonder how many fans in the arena think a similar thought while they are watching the women skate around. That sounds like a win-win: relish the spectacle while relegating the objects of display to a position of contempt. I am not pointing a finger at you specifically — I do not know, and frankly do not wish to know, exactly what your viewing habits are. But I think that’s how the sexual objectification of women works — it’s a two-for-one special, dinner and a show, a sense of moral superiority and a tantalizing display.

    The (relative?) absence of such displays — dance teams, cheerleaders, etc. — from baseball stadiums is interesting. I disagree that it has anything to do with the field of play. The dance team at the hockey game was nowhere near the ice surface — they were up on a balcony at one end of the arena. There’s plenty of real estate in the stands of a baseball stadium to accommodate a dance team, cheerleaders, whatever. So the ubiquity of women-on-display in other sports and their scarcity in baseball seems significant. If sex sells, why doesn’t sex sell baseball? Is that due to resistance on the part of the owners, or on the part of the fans, or a reflection of the culture/history of the game itself?

  8. “You call the ‘ice girls’ at the hockey rink ‘ice floozies’? I wonder how many fans in the arena think a similar thought while they are watching the women skate around.”

    I reckon, not many. They probably like them. I don’t.

    “That sounds like a win-win: relish the spectacle while relegating the objects of display to a position of contempt.”

    I don’t feel any contempt for the women; they’ve done nothing to me. My contempt is for the spectacle. Sex sells, but I’m not buying, not this time. Did you see how they’re dressed in those pictures? “Ice floozies” seems a fair description, since that’s what they’re supposed to be. “Eye candy” would be another description, but that’s just a polite euphemism. So yes, I’m contemptuous. So contemptuous that if I were in charge firing them all would be one of the first things I’d do. Because to me hiring women to parade around as objects of lust is a pretty contemptible thing to do.

    “The (relative?) absence of such displays — dance teams, cheerleaders, etc. — from baseball stadiums is interesting. I disagree that it has anything to do with the field of play . . . There’s plenty of real estate in the stands of a baseball stadium to accommodate a dance team, cheerleaders, whatever. “

    You’re thinking in terms of all the new baseball stadiums which have come along in the last two decades. No one’s cramming a cheerleader squad into Wrigley or Fenway. And no one was squeezing them into those multi-purpose abominations, either. That leaves you the field of play, and no one’s putting them there.

    “So the ubiquity of women-on-display in other sports and their scarcity in baseball seems significant. If sex sells, why doesn’t sex sell baseball? Is that due to resistance on the part of the owners, or on the part of the fans, or a reflection of the culture/history of the game itself?”

    The explanation really is simple: it’s basic me-tooism. Football has cheerleaders, and all the other sports will emulate what football does. NBA teams have them, too. No surprise the NHL would try to ape its more popular indoor cousin. And don’t underestimate cultural factors. Cheerleading is big in the South, from what I understand, and especially in Texas. When in Rome, etc. Rome for the Stars being Texas and Dallas. It’s not that baseball is some sort of unique excption. Most teams didn’t have cheerleaders, and hockey and baseball teams having them is a very recent phenomenon. Having them just wasn’t relevant. Baseball has mascots and organists. But not cheerleaders. It’s never been part of the sport. Which isn’t to say zany gimmicks aren’t part of baseball. Baseball gave us Bill Veeck. But not cheerleaders. And even some NFL teams don’t have them, including the Packers, Steelers, and Giants. And they’re just doing fine, I’d say.

  9. Hmmm. “They want to copy football” is not an adequate explanation for why hockey and basketball have precision dance teams and baseball does not (except, it seems, for the Marlins). Nor is “it’s never been part of the sport” — because, until recently it seems, that would have been true for hockey as well.

    You may be closer to an explanation if you are suggesting that baseball’s in-stadium crowd entertainment routines were set long ago, while hockey only recently decided that it needed such routines. But this is assuming that hockey had no prior tradition of “filler” entertainment similar to baseball’s. No organ music? No mascots? I find this surprising, but I’m not a hockey fan, so I’ll take your word for it.

    But if hockey did have the same kind of “filler” gimmicks that baseball has had (organ music, crowd songs/chants), then you’re basically suggesting that baseball owners are less interested in departing from tradition for the sake of revenue than hockey owners are — an argument that would be comforting to those of us who love baseball, but may not necessarily be true. Indeed, the history of Dot Racing (!) would suggest that baseball is perfectly willing and able to experiment with new forms of crowd entertainment.

    I don’t buy for a hot second that baseball doesn’t have cheerleaders because it hasn’t occurred to someone in the front office to give them a try, or because there’s no room on the field, or because the sport doesn’t “need” them. Until quite recently, it seems, hockey hasn’t “needed” cheerleaders either.

    If there were any chance that precision dancers would boost stadium or TV revenue for MLB teams, they’d be out there. Amid the organ music, crowd chants, gimmicky mascots, and scoreboard trivia games, there is plenty of time between innings for a brief precision dance routine. But for some reason — some reason beyond “they’ve never been there before” — this is not the case.

    However innovative the presence of dancers may or may not be in a given sport, though, they are traditional in the sense that they are there to be looked at. There is no blurring of the distinction between performer and audience; if anything, that distinction is underscored. There may be something compensatory in that move, but there’s nothing postmodern about it.

  10. If only Bill Veeck had thought up all this stuff in the 1950s? (During a losing streak, he had placards in the stands for the fans to make decisions for the team.) He invented the exploding scoreboard, etc. but I digress.

    If only there were sausage races at Milwaukee Brewers’ games? If only the Chicago Cubs had attractive ball girls like Marla Collins? The business of sports is an illusion. Without the physical items one may have purchased, the fan is left only with his or her memories and a sense of whether they had fun.

    The biggest spectacle of sport is nearly upon us: a tournament of our finest institutions of higher learning in the game of basketball. Billions of dollars will be exchanged in pools, thousands of commercials will air, and in the end one university will hoist the trophy due to the skills of coaches with the highest integrity and morality and their unpaid, mostly African-American athletes.

    btw Ms. Burnett, if you want to see a really sick shootout goal go to YouTube and look for Patrick Kane’s shootout goal vs. Minnesota Wild.

  11. Various thoughts:

    Growing up a baseball fan in Montreal (I know, bizarre, right?) I was always amazed at how many gimmicks there were at Expos games. During the seventh innings stretch the always used to play some dance music and have attractive women in shorts and tight t-shirts dance on top of the dugouts. Meanwhile, when I moved to Boston, and saw the Red Sox at Fenway… no gimmicks. That’s because, it seemed to me, the fans actually cared about the game. Ditto at the new Yankee Stadium, or Wrigley, or anywhere else they probably care.

    Don’t forget that a few years ago all of America was treated to Hockey 101 on Fox, with the glowing puck. That was funny.

    I think what has happened to sports is simple market segmentation, like music. Even though Football is still king, it’s not king like it used to be, with so many other forms of entertainment instantly available. That’s why Monday Night Football is on ESPN now instead of ABC.

    I detest the NCAA, but Harvard is in the tournament for the first time ever! Woohoo! I’m sort of excited about this.

    As for salaries, they are high, but don’t forget, in the NFL, the average career is short, and the average LIFESPAN is shockingly low, especially for linemen. And college football players are really taken advantage of, often suffering from a lifetime of pain and injury, or even early death, and not being paid if they don’t make it to the NFL. And hockey is exceptionally dangerous as well.

    Sports played at a high level are almost always wonderful: pro championships, Olympics, World Cup soccer, etc. Underdog stories are also great. To me though the real sign of decline is popularity of UFC. I’m a (relatively speaking) big boxing fan, and I like fighting in hockey (which I think is still less dangerous than the often legal bodychecking that occurs), but it strikes me that UFC takes people who were not at the top of various other sports (wrestling, boxing, kickboxing, martial arts) and thus is not really performed at a high level, and is often very boring, with flashes of extreme violence (ironically it’s less dangerous than a lot of these other sports because fights can end so quickly, rather than have repeated blows to the head and body). There are some exceptions of course, but for the most part this doesn’t really impress me.

  12. I think that professional baseball doesn’t have cheerleaders for multiple reasons. First, as Varad said, it is partially due to the field of play. While the game is going on, foul territory is a dangerous place for anyone without protective gear. There is a real danger that cheerleaders could get injured or even killed if they were anywhere on the field during the game. Also, even though the game is somewhat rationalized (due to innings), it is not as controlled by a clock the way most other popular team sports (basketball, football, hockey) are. Finally, we need to understand the history of professional baseball. Baseball was a professional sport well before football and basketball, which germinated as intercollegiate sports. Cheerleading is a phenomenon that grew out of college athletics. The first cheerleaders were male students who led the rooting section, and it was only later in the 20th century that universities in the South adopted female cheerleaders. Baseball, already heavily rooted in tradition, had decades without cheerleaders (male or female) before they became popular elsewhere; combined with the disadvantages of the field of play and the lack of a time clock, that has kept cheerleaders out of most stadiums.

    Having said that, I should note that when I lived in Atlanta I attended over 20 games at Turner Field, and in all those games there was a type of cheerleader. The “Braves Girls” toss T-shirts to the crowd and dance on top of the dugouts during breaks in the game, such as the seventh-inning stretch. During the game, though, it would probably be too distracting (and still perhaps dangerous) for a dozen young women dressed only in shorts, t-shirts, and baseball caps to stand on top of the dugouts and dance or otherwise lead the crowd in cheers.

    All in all, I think that the gimmicks we are discussing–Veeck’s exploding scoreboards, jumbotrons, sausage races in Milwaukee, the carousel at Comerica Park in Detroit, tool races (sponsored by Home Depot, of course!) at Turner Field–are the modern equivalent of vaudeville or a Hearst newspaper. It is variety show. Why only present theatrical acts to the crowd when you can also present music and films and comedy acts? Why only sell news about politics or world events when you could also sell cartoons and gossip columns and information about popular sporting events? Why settle for attracting a few thousand die-hard baseball fans when you can diversify your product and get tens of thousands of people who don’t care about baseball to spend their money at the park?

    The franchises don’t have to worry as much about spectator dissatisfaction if the game on the field isn’t good because all of those other things add value to the product. If people are buying an experience, not just a baseball game played by 18+ men on the field, they are willing to pay more–or at least a greater number of people with diverse interests are willing to pay more. Keep in mind that even the best baseball teams only win about 6 times out of 10. The greater variety of entertainments (distractions?) at a game minimize the chance that many spectators will be dissatisfied with their experience, since there was a little bit of something to make everyone (or virtually everyone) happy.

    Finally, I do think there is a postmodern aspect to the things we see at professional sporting events. It is partly that we all feel the need to be participants, but it is also about self-consciousness. In this case, the self-consciousness of the professional sports organizations. By making the members of the crowd part of the spectacle, it gives them less room to be critical of that spectacle. If the spectator is part of the production, then s/he feels invested in it and may be less critical of it. In a time when we are all encouraged to be cynical and question the things around us, this is a way of preserving the value and enjoyment of a spectacle.

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