I have never really been into sports. I played soccer and basketball as a kid but for whatever reason I have never really taken a great interest in sports. Maybe because I suck at them. But I do enjoy the pickup games I sometimes play, and even if I didn’t you would think I could still enjoy watching others play. I have often puzzled over what the appeal is of watching an NBA championship. You’ve seen one jump shot you’ve seen them all, right?
Then I heard this podcast on Radiolab: http://www.radiolab.org/story/153809-rules-set-you-free/. It explains how exceptional circumstances can give rise to plays where the competitors go “off book”. These novel moments make spectating exciting because they reveal the endless possibilities of the game and give us something unique to remember for a lifetime.
This was an epiphany for me. Maybe this is what gets people to obsess over sports so much. The same mechanic that gets them going back to the casino. Maybe Lambeau Field is just a big Skinner box that we have collectively decided is OK to get wrapped up in. This made sense, but I still couldn’t see myself spending three hours of my Saturday watching a hockey game just on the hope that I might see Alexandre Burrows bat in a hockey puck from mid-air. I mentioned this to Steel while we were all in California. He basically confirmed that if my entry into fandom is through these off-book moments that is not going to be enough to hold interest.
So what is it then that gets people coming back? What is the economic incentive (behavioral or monetary) for someone to give hours and hours of time this week to a series of NBA games that will have no material impact on their life? (Assuming they do not gamble.)
Then today I read an article that might be another clue into this world of fandom. I don’t know why I clicked on this article about Stephen Curry’s performance in the NBA Finals. I didn’t watch any of the games. But I found it fascinating. It think what drew me in was the statistical analysis and the underlying strategy that it revealed. The article basically uses statistics to show in what areas Stephen excels and then recommends strategies that could optimize team performance. The author then provides some counterpoints to his own argument and explores theories for why the team may not be adopting these strategies.
After reading this I was struck by how similar this article makes sports to video games. Video games are great because you get constant performance feedback and can use that information to adjust your strategies to increase your chance of winning. That seems to be exactly what this article is aiming to do.
So what do you guys think? Is it stats and armchair strategizing that keeps people engaged in sports in the absence of off-book moments? Or am I approaching this in a completely backwards manner. Is it enough for most people to simply watch a sporting match and enjoy it without thinking about all this other stuff?