How the mind of a modern-day sports fan works

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Watching sports with keen diligence gives you a bevy of life lessons along with frissons, mental skills along with thrills, emotional hues for your mundane blues.

Bred on a nourishing diet of games, where analysis is peppered with entertainment, the sports fan forges a unique path to self-development. | Pixabay

Sunday, July 15, 2018, was an extraordinary day. For a sports fan, it was like a family having cause for celebration on several counts at once — imagine a wedding, a younger one’s birthday and the senior-most couple’s wedding anniversary falling simultaneously on a single day.

A month-long fiesta comprising the FIFA World Cup, India’s cricket tour of England, Thailand Open badminton, Ultimate Table Tennis Championship, Hockey Champions League, and Wimbledon led up to July 15. And in that day culminated the combined climaxes of the World cup, Wimbledon and Thailand Open. For a sports fan, it was the confluence of celestial events.

This got me thinking. What is it to be a fan? To be a fan of many sports, to see games through the prism of many eyes, to learn, engage, emote and ride the curves of life through sports?

Different Ball Game

Today when I watch cricket, I see a ‘4’ just as a ‘boundary’. I no longer draw an imaginary line — 45 degrees on the right-hand side of the batsman with respect to the strip in the middle — to connect and visualise the cover-drive. We have moved on from the rustic medium of spectatorship offered by All India Radio, from learning the fielding positions, the mid-wickets, the covers, the long-legs, the sweepers out of sheer compulsion. Unlike a Dhritarashtra’s Sanjaya, a fan’s reality today stretches to ‘Augmented and Virtual Realty’. No wonder, as fans, we are different beasts today. We can have sports tickle our diverse senses, allow it to excite us with testosterone and yet be right-brained and analytical, partake of unique choices, and devour sports with novelty.

 

 

A devoted fan engages with the game in numerous ways lest he/she becomes a limited seeker amid all the sport’s possible outcomes. There’s a lot more for the taking in a game than just a win, loss or a draw. A lot more than just a hit, a chase, a point, or a goal. Today a dedicated fan watches the IPL (or any tournament of interest) not only for its games and grandeur, but also for the unique opportunity to apply her analytical skills. She calculates numbers, resorts to building mathematical models, remains ultra-competitive, having as much of her skin in the ‘game’ as the players might. In the fantasy games, she ‘consumes’ sports in unfamiliar ways. Industry body Indian Federation of Sports Gaming (IFSG) and AC Nielsen’s report predict that the fantasy sports user-base in India will cross 100 million by 2020.

With ball-by-ball commentary, mushrooming cable TV channels, sophisticated technology-driven coverage, and astronomical spending power, sports enthusiasm has reached new heights today.

Of Life’s Boundless Interpretations

All this headway aside, the plenitude of exposure to multiple events, formats, and genres has made the sports-nut’s life full of colours. An intellectual fan finds fodder, thrill and enlightenment across events — in the parallels and crossovers, hard and soft skills.

An ardent fan knows that a cricketer gets away with catching a ball in the air even if the ball is on the wrong side of the rope or line, but a footballer would concede a throw, a goal-kick, even a goal, in similar circumstances. A fan will air no doubt nor make heavy weather of acknowledging such technical differences. On-the-line is ‘Out’ (stumped) for a batsman living on the edge, but ‘In’ for a bowler in his delivery stride and for a tennis player returning a ball. When such ‘In’ and ‘Out’ contentions are displayed on the big screen, an unbaptised onlooker may look bemused, but the sincere fan, who knows the ins and outs of the sport, nods in approval. When ‘Reviews’ are taken by the adjudicators in one game but by the players in the other, a passer-by may freak out, but a genuine fan remains unfazed. Those are the fans in constant pursuit of knowledge — in understanding the subtleties that differentiate the VARs from the DRS’, exploring the line rules of the games, keeping the code of conduct at their fingertips.

Much like sport’s ‘hard’ technical aspects are caught by the fervent fan’s gimlet eye, the ‘soft’ features of the game don’t escape their sensitive mind. What separates the bystander from a passionate watcher is attention to detail and quality of interpretation. When the football World Cup arrives every four years, a passionate sports fan’s switching of allegiance is not necessary frivolous or superfluous. What may seem as pointless fanfare to the general public could bring ‘Eureka’ moments for a fan who dwells in the rarefied plane of sport. An analytical fan knows how to capture a game just by its bagful of numbers; though one can’t satiate the aesthetic fan by the same means.

 

 

For a cricket-loyalist, a foray into football offers a rare chance to understand an ‘alien’ sport that is played under the pressure of a ticking clock. Seeing Argentina score a much-needed goal in the dying moments of a World Cup group match evokes an emotion that cricket and tennis might be hard-pressed to produce when you compare the brevity of soccer with the protracted nature of an epic Wimbledon semifinal (Anderson vs Isner, 2018) or a 5-day Test that appears to meander. And then, the opposite also holds immense value to a follower. What many may deem a colossal waste of precious time — diligently watching month-long tourneys or following an entire season to the hilt — an ardent follower perceives as an achievement. Successfully integrating a busy Premier League, a World-Cup or a Wimbledon timetable into one’s calendar is akin to achieving a six-sigma standard in life — fulfilling all his/her life deliverables without defects whilst balancing the egg of spectatorship in the spoon of your timetable for the whole stretch.

A fan is astute enough to recognise and discriminate between the idiosyncrasies that each sport offers. When a Virat twirls his bat around the axis of its handle before taking guard, it’s just a photo-op or stylistic gesture; when a Manika Batra does the same with her paddle between rallies, it is an attempt to rehearse the generation of the right amount of spin or speed with a specific side of the racquet. When a Dhoni lets a ball roll onto the stumps without attempting to glove it, a fan sees in it as much impromptu sagacity as footballer Romelu Lukaku’s ‘seeing the big picture’ while allowing a ball pass to his countryman who is better-positioned to convert a chance. A fan sees Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius’ missing the regulation save (Champions League Final) in terms of cricket’s hoary adage, ‘catches win matches’. In wickets and goals, bats and racquets, runs and passes, a watchful fan’s life is not peppered with disjointed events but full of criss-crossing interpolations and multi-associative connections.

More Than Just a Game

What makes true fandom a pursuit to relish is also how its larger-than-life experience percolates into the mundane and enriches it.

“The morning after [the night England lost to Croatia in the FIFA World Cup] felt punctured but wistful, like coming home from a beach holiday with sand still just about between your toes”

... wrote Gaby Hinsliff in her Guardian column.

Sport is a unifier, an agent of cohesiveness in our society of many fissures. Yes, one superb sporting summer doesn’t make Gaby’s Brexit go away; a few Olympic medals do not craft a new national identity for an Indian overnight. But sport does influence fans in many non-stereotypical ways.

Fans can share in an athlete’s thrill without any or all of their sporting talent, rigour, and effort. Sports sculpt a fan’s thought process, control actions, and programming intelligence in several productive capacities. Sports fandom exhibits emotions in variety of hues — being a cricket fan over a soccer fan, being an analyst over a blithe watcher, to have got his/her own country to support over having “Meri Doosri Country”.

 

 

Sporting events and the heroics of sport-celebrities are accorded arguably the widest and greatest prominence. Whether due to parental control or personal curiosity, it is sports (as rivalled by politics or cinema) that is empowered to to shape our lives from an early age and make indelible impressions like nothing else (case in point, the potent combination of Cricket, Sachin Tendulkar and Doordarshan).

Sports fans acquire life lessons beyond conventional means. For example, I got wise to the concept of time zones, even before I learned it formally, through watching World Cup football in the Europe’s (Italy, ’90), Olympics in the Americas (Atlanta, ’96), or cricket in the down-under at odd hours of the day. From Steffi Graf’s accented English and immense woman power to Carl Lewis’ fluent English and track-and-field dominance, it was culture and economics on display to the adolescent me (I gleaned that English alone does not mean prosperity or how rich nations do well in sports). The concept of ‘Run-Rate’ got ingrained in me, aiding me in different fields of my life — from completing the syllabus on time to chasing business targets. To a fan, each sportsperson is a brand ambassador of his/her nation, each well-to-do country is a powerful realm and each global event is a chance to reconnoitre an unexplored world.

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