Why is recorded, non-live sports so boring to watch?

by on June 12, 2011 at 12:38 pm in Sports | Permalink

There is a new essay by Chuck Klosterman.  He lists several reasons why watching recorded sports events is such a downer, but he lays heaviest stress on a Bayesian argument:

2. “If this game has already ended and I don’t know anything about what happened, it was probably just a game”: This sentence is so obvious that it’s almost nonsensical, but I suspect it’s the one point that matters most. It’s the central premise behind the entire concept of “liveness,” which is what this whole problem comes down to.

…When you watch an event in real time, anything is possible. Someone could die. Something that has never before happened could spontaneously happen twice. When there are three seconds on the clock, not one person in the world can precisely predict how those seconds will unspool. But if something happens within those three seconds that is authentically astonishing and truly transcendent — well, I’m sure I’ll find out about three minutes after it happens. I’m sure someone will tell me, possibly by accident. You can avoid the news, but you can’t avoid The News. Living in a cave isn’t enough. We’ve beaten the caves. The caves have Wi-Fi.

Do you watch the live, non-recorded performance and enjoy the hope of a Black Swan?  The essay is interesting throughout.  I thank a  loyal MR reader for the pointer.

1 Eric Falkenstein June 12, 2011 at 12:48 pm

This seems related to ambiguity aversion, which is that people would rather bet on future events than on past events of equal uncertainty. In experiments, a lottery ticket is worth a lot less after the drawing for most people even if they don’t know what the true number is, and seemingly the seller does not either. People shy away from processes about which they think they have insufficient, as opposed to probabilistic, information, even if framed identically (eg, both with a 50% chance). The best hypothesis about this is the Fear on Negative Evaluation (FNE), which argues that if a bad outcome were to result from a prospect about which an agent had relatively little knowledge his failure can be blamed on his incompetence. A bad outcome resulting from a pure risky prospect, on the other hand, cannot be attributed to poor judgment.

Yet, I don’t think this really applies to merely enjoying a game, so maybe the FNE doesn’t explain ambiguity aversion.

2 Bill June 12, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Is it?

What if you do not know the outcome of the game and are watching it for the first time.

NBC Olympics?

3 jpd June 12, 2011 at 12:53 pm

followup question:
why is live sports so boring?

4 Nick June 12, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Watching great sports moments on YouTube can certainly be enjoyable…it obviously won’t be as sentimental as if you were there or saw it live, but it has some value. I do however agree a game full of non-events has little replay value.

5 A. June 12, 2011 at 1:16 pm

If you’re really expecting a crazy, rare event to happen, then aren’t you wasting your time the other 99.9%?

6 clown June 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm

I always DVR my sports games. Not only does this allow me to skip ads, but the 30sec fast forward button on my remote is ideal for skipping free throws, time outs, time between football downs, time between baseball pitches, time between tennis serves, etc. This method can shorten a 4 hr baseball game to less than 60 minutes, and I’m not missing out on anything vital. I won’t wait too long to watch my recordings – no more than 24 hrs – any longer and the risk of learning the result of the game becomes too high. I agree with Klosterman – it is no easy task to cut oneself off from the world. The difficulty is not avoiding official news sources – ESPN etc are easy enough to steer clear of. The real trouble are friends. Texts, emails, facebook statuses, away messages – these are the most troublesome sources of sports games spoilers. I watch NBA playoff games from my DVR, but I’ll watch the game that same night – the recording delay is only an hour or so – enough time to skip the ads. My friends watching the game live often text me to comment on something happening live in the game. I used to avoid reading those texts to avoid any spoilers, but I have come to realize that the mere fact that my friends are texting me at all tells me something noteworthy has happened in the game. That in itself is a spoiler. So now I just turn my phone off.

7 Jim June 12, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Precisely so.

Recorded sports is so far superior to the alternative that I have actually come to dread watching a game live.

8 michael June 12, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Immediacy…..that’s the joy of live sport. Not only that you’re watching it in person or on the tube, but that you know10-20-100 million are also watching at that very same moment.

You lose that in tape delay…it’s why the telecasts of the 2000 Olympics sucked so bad.

9 songar June 12, 2011 at 1:28 pm

This doesn’t explain the sign outside a nightclub advertising “Live Nude Dancers” does it. . .?

10 David Gonzales June 12, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Actually, maybe it does. To spell it out: In a live show you might possibly interact more than visually with the dancers.

11 Eric June 12, 2011 at 1:28 pm

The Tour de France is not this way and, with anecdotal support, this is the case for many fans. I think that the narrative thrust of long cycling races makes these different. I know that basketball can be that way too (LBJ’s 4th quarter weakness, for example, or a string of fast drives in American football). But a 23 day race oozes with a narrative allure and has an end that is not a buzzer–a bona fide romantic telos.

12 Jüri June 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Agreed. The Tour is definitely one the events where Klosterman’s arguments don’t hold all that well.

13 David June 12, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Some sports have robust markets for dvds of past events, especially boxing and poker. ESPN regularly shows old fights, much more so than other sports.

14 Bill Harshaw June 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm

I remember being brought to tears when I watched Billy Mills winning in the 1964 Olympics, the Tokyo Olympics so the performance was not live. Today there’s thousands of hours of sports available to the viewer, both live and recorded, for every minute which was available in 1964.

15 dearieme June 12, 2011 at 1:45 pm

90 minutes of soccer often boils down very nicely to 10-15 minutes of highlights.

16 Yancey Ward June 12, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Surely you mean 10-15 seconds.

17 dearieme June 12, 2011 at 5:31 pm

No,no, I was referring to world football not American football.

18 Ryan June 12, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Surely you mean 10-15 seconds.

19 Yancey Ward June 12, 2011 at 7:46 pm

And double touche!!

20 Matthew June 13, 2011 at 8:53 am

“Half-back passes to the center, back to the wing, back to the center. Center holds it. Holds it. Holds it…”
-The Simpsons (1994)

21 Yancey Ward June 12, 2011 at 7:46 pm


22 MPS17 June 12, 2011 at 2:00 pm

I don’t know; I think it’s because you know the game has an outcome already so there’s no excitement associated with the uncertainty in seeing how it plays out.

I’m busy now but I think you could construct an analogy to people’s initial reaction to the proposal that there’s no free will, that the universe is essentially deterministic. Maybe there are thought experiments along the lines of “we know everything you’re going to do tomorrow and what will be the outcome, but not for days after tomorrow; do you want to just skip ahead or do you want to live that day and do the things we know you’re going to do?”

23 sidereal June 12, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Boring for whom? I routinely watch DVR’d sports and as long as I successfully maintain the necessary media blackout to avoid knowing the result, there’s no subjective difference from watching it live.

24 John June 12, 2011 at 2:31 pm

I think the preference for live sports that some people have is based around group membership. Live sports is an easy and obvious way to have kinship with many more people than the 150 we can even actually have in our monkeysphere. That feeling of group membership is what sustains many fans between events. When you watch non-live sports you know it’s a past event. If anything it’s a negative experience because it’s proof that you missed an opportunity to participate in your larger group’s main activity.

25 Bill June 12, 2011 at 2:54 pm

Agreed as to live, in person sports events attended with others.
Not so much with a TV all by yourself.

26 Bill June 12, 2011 at 3:30 pm

I think you have some good points about social interaction and group membership with live sports.

I am wondering how the excitement level would be for non-live sports under two conditions: 1. Where you are alone and watching a recorded event you have never seen and 2. With a group of people watching a recorded event they have never seen.

I can guess which is more exciting without wiring up people with electrodes to measure their heart rate, respiration, and skin response.

But, what about a live event–how would that rate against the above two situations, either alone or with others. I think if you are alone at a live event, you are with others, even if you are alone, so what dominates is being with a group.

27 Dan Weber June 12, 2011 at 10:18 pm

I like it when my favorite song is on the radio more than listening to it on a recorded format, even if the recorded format is much superior in quality.

I think it’s because I like sharing the experience of the song with thousands or millions of people — even though I am completely unaware of their presence and am unlikely to ever become aware of them.

Sometimes watching a movie live on AMC or TNT can be fun, too, even if I have access to it in better formats. I think for the same reason.

28 NRPS June 12, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Paging Robin Hanson. I think he had a post on how being the first to bring news to others raises your status. As a result, watching the event in person is higher status than watching it live on video, which is higher status than watching it on delay/watching it on a gametracker (text updates), which is higher status than reading a recap/watching highlights, which is higher status than not knowing the result at all.

Among sports fans, you’d never brag about *reading* about someone throwing a no-hitter. You would, however, mention in passing that you saw it live on video at the time if the topic came up. You would for the rest of your life tell people you saw a no-hitter in person, with a great deal of pride.

This is why people will pay large amounts of money to sit in very terrible seats (see Superbowl in Dallas where they added tons of terrible seats) and even pay money to watch the game on a screen outside the stadium (“I was at Superbowl XXXV!”).

29 NRPS June 12, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Here’s what’s really fascinating about this topic. I watch baseball almost daily on MLB.tv. The video feed is slightly delayed, such that the MLB.com pitch-by-pitch gametracker (which is just a 2D text-based update of the game) is generally 1 pitch ahead of the video feed. Even though watching the video tells you much more than the pitch tracker and it much more enjoyable, I have to use a lot of self-control not to peek ahead that *one pitch* to see where the game is, especially at very important points in the game.

30 Yancey Ward June 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm

I am desperate to peer over Tyler’s shoulder while he writes his blog posts. Ah, can you imagine the joy of being the first to read something wonderful rather than to be forwarded here by Arnold Kling?

31 Alissa Kirby June 12, 2011 at 3:17 pm

There are some people who DO enjoy watching re-runs of great sports games, like the World Series, for example, but mostly people like my boyfriend merely turn on an old baseball game when they can’t sleep. I’m curious though as to why people are more likely to re-watch an episode of a great show, like Family Guy, for entertainment and and not be just as entertained by a recording of a sports game..? Ultimately, in either case you know the outcome.

32 John June 12, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Family Guy follows a script that was specifically written to be repeatedly enjoyed. A sports game doesn’t follow any narrative other than the one that sportscasters project onto it.

33 Alissa Kirby June 12, 2011 at 3:19 pm

From the article:
“It makes no sense: All winter long, I’m constantly trying to catch random mid-major college basketball games between second-tier teams going nowhere, all while realizing I can’t remember who played in the Final Four just three years ago.”

We do this with news as well.

34 Former NBA Game Trader June 12, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Tyler, there exists a healthy market for recorded, non-live sports. How do I know? Because I used to trade NBA games. I would estimate that a couple thousand people in the United States trade games regularly. I used to have several hundred games (mostly original broadcasts). Many people collect games of specific teams/stars–think a Michael Jordan collection, or a Showtime Lakers collection. The hobby’s Holy Grail is a full-length, English-language version of Michael Jordan’s first NBA game (Bulls vs. Bullets, November 1984).

35 rh June 12, 2011 at 5:32 pm

It’s the social experience, too. I dread watching live sports yet I sometimes cannot help doing it because all my buddies are there.

36 Michael Cain June 12, 2011 at 5:49 pm

I’ll watch replays of college football games with “my” team, where there’s a season-long sort of narrative. It’s one thing to know the final outcome. It’s another when you’re also looking for improvement in the play. As in, did the O-line get its act together this week? Note that there’s only a limited period of time when this is interesting.

37 mac June 12, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Soccer is the only sport I can tolerate live on the television. Otherwise the commercials drive me mad (NFL games regularly go for 3.5 hours of inane commentary and athletes competing for celebration dance time on ESPN highlight reels). So, the solution to this problem? popping round to the pub for the live match.

38 Nick June 13, 2011 at 12:51 am

Not to mention the fact that football is slowed down by the atrocious idea of plays being reviewed. God help us if they bring it to baseball.

39 mac June 13, 2011 at 9:28 am


40 David June 12, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Surely this applies just as much to music and literature, so I’m not sure it’s just about ‘news’ or ‘uncertainty vs incomplete information’. There’s sufficient quality works out there that we could just live off the past – with the exception maybe of postcolonial fiction or other works which allegedly speak with particularity to your own existence. Half the value of these things is the shared experience.

41 Kat June 12, 2011 at 7:12 pm

I used to try to avoid finding out about who won the Super Bowl and see how long it was before I knew. Might have lasted over 24 hours, once.

I do enjoy watching “artistic” sports recorded–gymnastics, diving, etc., but I’d enjoy watching them even if they weren’t scored.

42 Yancey Ward June 12, 2011 at 7:50 pm

Just wait 6 months and you won’t know again.

43 Dominic June 12, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Kat– You aren’t the only one: http://www.midmajority.com/p/1595

44 James Davies June 13, 2011 at 1:13 am

I watch record, non-live sports all the time. English football (soccer) and Le Mans automobile racing are just two examples. Sometimes it can take a couple days of watching to catch up on a 24-hour automobile race. I find it just as exciting as watching it live.

Since these sports are not popular in the USA, it is easy to not find out who won, especially if one doesn’t have friends who follow the same sports. It would be more difficult to stay ignorant of who won the Super Bowl, I think.

I’ve heard stories of researchers who winter over at the South Pole taking whole seasons of baseball recorded on VHS tapes to keep them entertained. This was before the internet, which today keeps even the most bored Antarctic researcher up-to-date on sports and news while wintering over.

45 ax June 13, 2011 at 3:34 am

“He lists several reasons why watching recorded sports events is such a downer.”

Only that it’s not? I can’t watch most of the Red Sox games live because of time differentials. Still I enjoy watching the recorded games on mlb.com.

46 Dan June 13, 2011 at 8:20 am

Am I the only one left alive who remembers ABC’s Wide World of Sports? There was a time when if you wanted any non-American sports on TV, or any obscure American sports (remember when NASCAR was a quaint Southern localism?), their recorded and heavily edited broadcasts were the only way to go.

47 Matthew June 13, 2011 at 9:01 am

I don’t like watching non-live sporting events because it makes it too apparent that all of my fan cheering & rooting & lucky jersey & other superstitions really have no impact on the game.

I enjoy deluding myself into thinking that if I cheer hard enough, I can will my team to victory.

I agree with Klosterman that I find it very hard to avoid the temptation to just fast-forward to the end, if I am watching a recorded game. Watching the live game is nice because I *know* that it is impossible to consume the game at a faster rate than what is being broadcast.

I disagree with Klosterman that it is difficult to avoid knowing the outcome of a game. Close the Facebook tab. Close the Twitter tab. Don’t go to ESPN.com or other sports sites. I seem to have no problem avoiding the scores. However, it does have a high cost, in that I can’t use Facebook or Twitter or turn on my phone. For me, the cost is usually worth it.

However, just because the cost is high, does not mean actually making the transaction is very difficult. In that sense I do not share Klosterman’s viewpoint. Perhaps since he works as a professional sports essayist so often, his world may be more full of hard-to-avoid sports chatter than mine is. I am usually the lone sports fanatic in a room full of nerds.

48 Stephen June 13, 2011 at 3:27 pm

I think the reasons are the following:

1. There is more excitement in knowing that no one in the world knows the outcome of the event. You, along with all the others who are watching, get to know the outcome as it happens, get to see spectular plays as they occur in real-time, etc.

2. Part of the excitement of the game is imaging what the other players must be feeling. The emotional highs and lows of the game. Our mirror neurons fire repeatedly thoughout an exciting game. I believe this effect is greater when the game is live, knowing that the players involved in the game are experiencing these emotions right now in the present

3. Social aspects of the game. We like to talk to friends/relatives/acquantances about the recent game. We can’t talk about an old game, because that is “old news”.

49 Seth June 13, 2011 at 5:37 pm

As I get older, I prefer knowing the outcome while I watch it. Perhaps I’m just boring. Or maybe I’m a product of Tarantino, who helped get me get used to knowing the outcome and then watching how the story unfolded to get there.

50 Matt June 14, 2011 at 9:26 am

What about joining the game in progress and catching up by skipping the commercials? You can add breaks at your leisure and still get the timing right so that you can watch the last 5 minutes in real time. Soccer is also good to watch at 2x speed. Even though you don’t get the early going of the games live, you still witness the climax and learn the end result at the same time as everyone else.

51 jarrod myrick June 14, 2011 at 9:49 am

the people love to tweet the game live

52 Hasdrubal June 14, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Jeff Ely over at Cheap Talk had a post relating to this effect a year ago. http://cheaptalk.org/2010/07/01/avoiding-spoilers/

In order to avoid the “If I didn’t hear about it, it’s probably boring” outcome, he suggests:

“Finally, if you really want to keep your prior and you recognize the effects above, then there is one way to generate a countervailing effect. Have your wife watch first and commit to a random disclosure policy. Whenever the favorite won, then with probability p she informs you and with probability 1-p she reveals nothing.”

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