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?