They Reminisce Over You – Fantasy, Reality and Everything In Between
The plight of any sports fan over 30 is that we constantly yearn for bygone eras. Nostalgia has a funny way of making things seem better or worse than they actually were therefore complaining that things just aren’t as good as they used to be becomes a staple of watching our favourite teams as we get older regardless of whether it’s true or not.
The facts are simply that times change, you change and modern day athletes become bigger, stronger and faster than they’ve ever been. Games are played at a blistering pace and as a result these finely tuned specimens have become a protected species as teams and leagues strive to protect their assets.
You probably know people who despise the modern day approach and pine for the days of smash mouth action but there’s a reason why concussion and head trauma are high on the agenda in the sporting world and subject to historical lawsuits.
Putting claim to which was the “golden era” of any sport will never not be a topic for debate and an impossible argument to settle. Opinions are subjective, based on varied criteria ranging from, yet not limited to the likes of personal experiences, tastes, styles, statistics, expectations and that’s what makes the subject worthwhile.
Would Mike Tyson at his devastating best stop a prime Muhammed Ali? Would a 28 year old Kobe Bryant hold the ability to overcome a 1996 Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls team? We’ll never know but it doesn’t mean we can’t argue about it for the next 40 years.
So we know that sports continue to advance but are things really so different when you break down why we love sports in the first place? What changes occur that give us a nostalgic longing for the “good old days” that on reflection sometimes maybe weren’t as good as you remember them to be?
Personal preference dictates whether you admire the technical perfection of Roger Federer over the flair of Andre Agassi or maybe it’s the showmanship of John McEnroe that draws your admiration. There is no right or wrong answer, it’s all greatness - just in different guises. Some people like to drive in to work on a morning whereas others may choose to cycle or to walk, they all get there and that’s all that matters. Beauty, as they say, truly is in the eye of the beholder.
Nostalgia for me is finding that beauty in simplicity. Trivial things that remain memorable. An NBA fan since the age of 12 back in 1994, access to the sport used to be extremely limited so any chance I had to watch a game or highlights package was met with unbridled joy. Finding an NBA VHS in a local video shop was a holy grail back in the 90’s. The game was full of characters that captured your imagination in a way that maybe the media trained clones of today become disposable in our affections.
My close friends who shared my enthusiasm for the game and I had even more restrictive limitations placed upon us living in North East England when it came to obtaining basketball related clothing or footwear. In this pre internet era, scouring a clothing outlet and finding a Vince Carter North Carolina jersey was a huge deal for us, as it was when one of our group returned from a family vacation to the Caribbean with the latest pair of Air Jordan’s.
In 2017? Just open your web browser, search for what you want and it can be with you the next day – where is the joy in that? Again, everything becomes disposable rather than an object of affection.
I now play against 16-17 year olds who turn up each week in a different pair of shoes and own all the latest jerseys. I’ve a feeling they won’t retain the same fondness for those as I do for my 1996 Converse basketball sneakers that were scrawled with GP20 in black biro on the back in tribute to my favourite player of that time – “The Glove” Gary Payton.
Between 1999 - 2002, Mitchell & Ness, a company that has been around since 1904 and nearly went bust in 1983, made some moves to obtain the rights to produce retro jerseys and apparel for the National Basketball Association, the National Football League and the National Hockey League in addition to the contracts they already held for Major League Baseball.
This coincided with the emergence of online shopping and children of the 70’s and 80’s having access to disposable income - their revenue shot up to $23m in 2002 up from $4.5m in 2001 – the demand and sentimental affection for sporting apparel of yesteryear was there and they were only too happy to provide for it. All the jerseys and apparel my generation couldn’t have or afford as kids suddenly became available. Rappers, Hip Hop stars and even pro athletes in the States were seen donning various jerseys of now rival teams, only too happy to part with their cash to purchase their own piece of nostalgia.
The ways in which we consume sport is vastly different now compared to as little as 10-15 years ago. Traditionally, tuning in to rigidly scheduled programming or attending a game was due to an interest in the team or players or just out of a love of the game itself. Free time would be filled by seeking articles containing the latest news and game reports or by dissecting the weekend’s games in the workplace via the old ‘Monday Morning Quarterback’ routine.
This all still happens now of course but whereas previously the reputable sources for information were delivered with purposely selected narratives to suit agendas and to maintain relationships by the main media outlets of the pre multimedia era (newspapers, radio & TV stations, fanzines), you now have all of the above and more.
Multimedia of today, whether it be websites, fan blogs/vlogs, podcasts or social media accounts act in real time. Basically, anyone who desires a platform to voice their opinion has access to one and the agenda led media companies of old are no longer the lone voice of reporting.
Quantity over quality? Potentially, but it has also led to many successful outlets such as the Bill Simmons led websites Grantland and The Ringer housing a collection of extremely talented freelance writers given the freedom to express themselves thoughtfully in an entertaining yet educational manner without any political agenda financing their work.
One consequence of the smart phone era is that we have become a “hot take” society with a thirst for short attention span theatre. Updates stream through our apps 24/7, no time to digest what we take in before the next update comes through, another subject to voice an opinion on. Listening to others’ views, seeking rationale of their opinions seems lost on some, replaced by limited characters to issue a sense of false outrage in disagreement. On the flip side we have an option for praise in the form of a “like” button that validates nothing in reality but serves its purpose for those seeking approval from their peers.
No longer bound by restrictions in only being able to view what a terrestrial or subscription network dictates thanks to official league or independent streaming subscriptions we no longer have the anticipation and excitement of looking forward to our favourite sports shows once a week.
TV networks and sports-centric radio stations need to provide content to fill slots in their 24 hour schedules which has resulted in the “Hot Take” genre becoming a daily platform created to discuss the latest news and spark topics for debate.
Typically co-hosted by male protagonist and antagonist presenters, they will sometimes be accompanied by a female mediator. The protagonist (think a Max Kellerman character) very rarely offers a ”hot take” of their own but will usually lead a topic with a balanced rationale whilst also offering the antagonist the match with which to start the fire. In rare cases, you get the ESPN2 show “First Take” where they didn’t even bother with a protagonist and just let two antagonists in Stephen A Smith and Skip Bayless go at it each day! The result… a tsunami of shit.
Are these shows any different to conversations taking place in any bar in any country around the world when it comes to sports? Probably not but they are purposely dumbing down the intelligence levels of an audience over who they hold huge exposure. The pretence here though is that these are paid experts, opinions supposedly born out of an educated eye, not a passionate diatribe between two casual fans born out of enthusiasm and frustration.
I’ll take the days of an elder passing on their assessment born out of experience or regaling tales of sporting heroes even when embellished in a way that makes Greek mythology seem beige in comparison over a mouth piece paid to spout scripted bile about an athlete in order to retain viewership. This especially galls when it pertains to topics that hold no relevance over their ability to perform on a field of play.
Our fathers told us stories based around the majestic talents of Bobby Charlton or the scheming guile of Billy Bremner. Those stories live with us. Not once was it deemed relevant to include how much they earned, what cars they drove or how many homes they owned. No athlete ever produced a legacy based on their material possessions yet these are used as yardsticks to be scrutinised with today.
Revisiting moments from your own golden era of choice may invoke feelings that long lay dormant yet instantly transport you back in time the same way hearing a song can act as a soundtrack to a certain stage of your life. That’s nostalgia. There’s a reason you embraced it, you took the time to live it and enjoy it. You will more than likely one day relay stories of your own sporting icons to a younger generation and I’d wager you won’t use stats or possessions as a narrative.
One benefit of the increased availability of analysis and technological advances that I personally love is the opportunity to play Fantasy Sports. Putting your knowledge to the test against friends and “experts” is a huge obsession for some. NFL Fantasy Football in particular is the leading revenue generator within this niche market.
In 2013, Brian Goff wrote for Forbes magazine that “the Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimates that 32 million Americans spend $467 per person or about $15 billion in total playing. Added to actual expenditures and ad revenues, the industry amounts to anywhere from $40 something-billion to over $70 billion per year in tangible and intangible activity.”
Millions tune into watch the NFL each week based solely on their fantasy line up. No emotional investment around the eventual result, only on the individual players producing an output that meets their fantasy needs.
Fantasy Sports companies thrive on statistics updating in real time but the ever increasing demand for this means skirting a fine line in blurring reality between providing factual information that is relevant to performance assessment and that which can be used as a means of blame for losing a game of fantasy.
An athlete’s reputation should be founded on their efficiency in doing their job, not based on what statistics they produce and how a Fantasy Sports company decide what weight that holds in relevance to winning a manufactured game of chance. Yet here we are in an era when some franchises now choose to use statistics to incentivise a player’s contract that suits their financial agenda, something which could compromise a player’s approach, especially in a team environment.
An over reliance on statistics in order to strengthen an opinion can become a crutch to lean on and you can find statistics for pretty much anything to suit your agenda if you look hard enough. For what may seem the most damning of statistics should be given perspective to only be used to supplement an educated analysis instead of being used as a point of definitive emphasis as it only forms part of a bigger picture.
Within any sporting environment there are countless variables that analysis cannot cover and therein lies the beauty of the argument – you debate what YOU see and the strength of your argument lies in your ability to articulate your point.
We are at risk of over analysing sports to the point whereby we overlook the human element of why watch in the first place. Dispute the quality of the product on offer by all means, argue your interpretation of the rules and use statistics to emphasise your point but don’t overlook the perspective of personal enjoyment.
The aesthetically pleasing “Invincibles” Arsenal team of 2003-04 are deservedly amongst a handful of teams in the conversation for the greatest Premier League side ever due to their monumental effort of remaining unbeaten through all 38 games. They face competition from the well-oiled tactical machine that were Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea from the following season.
That particular team, although not undefeated, broke their own records on their way to the title in only conceding 15 goals all season, keeping 25 clean sheets in 38 games. Both are outstanding achievements worthy of the adulation they receive but neither holds more weight over the other in determining which one ranks higher.
They are merely different tactical approaches that each resulted in a trophy winning season. If you prefer one over the other, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong.
My parting plea to you is to remember why YOU take enjoyment in watching sports. Don’t be so quick to disparage what brings joy to others for different reasons, use statistics and analysis as a tool of information to further your education and appreciation of the art form rather than to beat down an opinion of others. Please don’t become another victim of the “hot take” era.
Take pleasure in romanticising a sporting moment, in being mesmerised by what you have experienced as no heat map could ever measure the beauty of seeing Dennis Bergkamp gliding effortlessly across a football pitch with a ball at his feet.