The Incredible Shrinking Games

It was a few weekends ago, October 17th to be exact. I awoke early–a highly unusual experience on any day, let alone a Saturday–because I had a project to complete, and I wanted to get to work as quickly as possible.

I’ve found that having a game on in the background helps my work go by quicker; it being a Saturday morning in autumn, I had a cornucopia of college football at my disposal on TV. Twelve games, to be exact–and those were just the 9 AM Pacific time kickoffs. The major networks offered several games that were sure to be attractive to a college football fan: Iowa vs. Northwestern; West Virginia vs. Baylor; and Louisville vs. Florida State, among others. So which game did I choose to watch, or at least hear in the background while I worked?

Princeton vs. Brown on the local CSN affiliate, of course.

The DFR: FandomWhat possible reason could I have had for watching the game between the Tigers and the Bears, when the other channels offered games between major FBS programs that promised to be highly competitive and entertaining, if not simply a better brand of football?

Am I an alumnus of either school? No, nor am I affiliated with any other Ivy League institution.

Do I hail from Rhode Island or New Jersey? Are either teams local to me? No again. I started life in Philadelphia, a brief drive down I-95 from Princeton, but that’s as close as it gets.

Do I know anyone associated with either school? Once more, no.

Size matters, even within the minds of the average sports fan, and the tendency leans towards having every experience live up to colossal expectations.

So what made an FCS game between two middling Ivy League squads my choice of distraction for a Saturday morning when I had work to do? It was simply this: I’m sick and tired of a lot of big-time sports, and going off that heavily beaten path once in a while serves as a great refresher for one’s love of the games.

Nor was that Saturday the first time I eschewed the heavily hyped weekend games for something a little quieter, a little scaled-down, a little less self-important. A few weeks earlier, in the same situation, I chose a game between Delaware at Villanova for my background noise. (In that case, there is a tangential connection; my father once worked at Villanova, and I actually set foot on that campus several times as a boy.)

Those small-time broadcasts may not have had quite the same quality as you would get from the major networks for one of their ultra-hyped, clash of the titans games. You get fewer camera angles, less artful direction, not particularly great announcers (a deficiency that plagues even the top drawer games these days, of course), less flash and dazzle in the production values, and substantially cheesier commercials during the breaks.

But when you strip away all the sparkle and pixie dust from the broadcasts, what you’re actually left with is the game–the sport itself, the ostensible reason that we all choose to tune in and spend our time watching these things. Get rid of all the layers of build-up and you can reconnect with what makes the games appealing in the first place.

Watching a football game between two small colleges can take a viewer back, not just to one’s college days, but to high school experiences as well. The stadium is usually small, an intimate venue where the campus scenery can be glimpsed just beyond the goal posts. The cheerleaders on the sidelines seem less like glamour queens and more like the girls you sat next to in class when you were in school. And the crowds in the stands–typically, small grandstands of bleacher seating, much like a high school–may be small compared to the 100,000 bodies packing “the Big House,” but those people are there because they have an intimate, compelling reason to be there, and the connection they feel to the action on the field palpably comes through–whether through the TV screen, or, undoubtedly, even more so if one were to actually get out there and watch the game in person.

Viewing such a “small” game is a bit like traveling back in time, back to a time and place where and when the monstrous growth of sports in this country was still a wave of the future. Something simpler, charming, refreshing comes through when you leave the “Power 5” behind and sample what the rest of the college football world has to offer. And that benefit is not just limited to college football. You could get much the same experience from attending a local high school football game.

Nor are you limited to football for this refreshing experience. Some years ago a group from my work went to a minor league baseball game, and we had as good a time as we would have had at an MLB game–without being relentlessly pounded with hype and advertising blasted over state-of-the-art sound and video systems. The same can surely be said for junior league hockey games, semi-pro leagues in a variety of sports, or even the oft-dreaded little league games your kids play.

Folks who live in small towns–to the extent that they still exist in this country–probably see none of this as news. But the majority of us today live in major metropolitan areas, and within those climes the feeling can be strongly biased towards the highest levels of competition for spectator sports. Size matters, even within the minds of the average sports fan, and the tendency leans towards having every experience live up to colossal expectations.

But you can do yourself a favor by turning away from the hype and hugeness, and instead scaling down the world within which your fandom lives. At the very least, you can remind yourself that there’s a world of the real out there, a human-sized venue of passion and joy that lies at the heart of the sports fan’s experience.


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