Why I stopped being a sports fan.

The stadium scene.
Jan. 4 2010 4:18 PM

Unsporting

Why I stopped being a sports fan.

To hear Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis, Mike Pesca, and John Swansburg discuss this article on Slate's sports podcast, "Hang Up and Listen," click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 26:14 mark:  

Illustration by Robert Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Several months ago, I gave up sports. I hadn't planned to go cold turkey, so I didn't note the exact day I quit. One morning—it must have been in June—I picked up the paper and didn't feel like reading the sports section. So I didn't, that day or any day since. Around the same time, I stopped watching live sporting events on TV, catching highlights on ESPN, and checking for the latest sports news on the Web. I abandoned, midseason, two promising fantasy baseball teams in two very competitive leagues. Though I'd visited all but three of Major League Baseball's stadiums over the previous five seasons, I didn't attend a single ballgame in 2009. I haven't seen so much as a quarter of an NBA game this season. Somewhat to my surprise, I don't miss any of it.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

At the most basic level, I stopped following sports because being a sports fan took too much time. In recent years, I had followed the Red Sox, the Boston Celtics, and to a lesser degree, the New England Patriots. During NASCAR's long February-to-November season, I also kept tabs on my favorite driver, the irascible Tony Stewart.   There were thus few weeks in the calendar year when there wasn't a game to watch, a race to follow, or a hot-stove rumor to chase down. On an average weekend, I might devote three hours to a football game, another four to stock cars, and at least a couple of hours to ESPN.com, Deadspin, various newspaper sports sections, and a handful of fantasy advice sites. (Thank you, belatedly, Closer Watch Report.) Watching sports and consuming news about my favorite teams had come to occupy the majority of my leisure time.

Not all that long ago, the media diet of even the most dedicated fan was far less rich. Before cable, satellite, and the Web, you could follow the home team on local TV and radio; if you missed the game, you could read about it in the paper the next morning. To keep up with the rest of the sports world, you subscribed to Sports Illustrated or the Sporting News and watched whatever games made the network broadcasts. If you weren't interested in spending Sunday afternoon watching Sidney Moncrief's Bucks take on Mo Cheeks' 'Sixers, well, you could clean the garage.

Please don't mistake me for some fuddy-duddy who longs for the days of reading box scores by the wood-burning stove. One of my happiest sports memories is of listening to Anibal Sanchez's 2006 no-hitter on satellite radio while sending gloating text messages to other owners in my fantasy league. (I'd picked up Sanchez after reading about his minor league résumé on the Sons of Sam Horn message board.) But these new ways of following sports have made it easier for a casual fan to slip into Big Fan territory. There was a time when I'd catch a game here and there, watch SportsCenter a few nights a week, and really start paying attention come playoff time. I woke up one day not long ago (to a clock radio blaring WFAN) and found that I had a Google alert for "Kevin Garnett knee," a subscription to Baseball Prospectus, and a genuine interest in the Twitter updates of Juan Pablo Montoya.

For all the ways in which new media have changed how we follow our favorite teams, sports remain mired in the past in one basic way: You pretty much have to watch them live. Sure, you can record a Sunday afternoon football game and watch it the next day, but the final score is harder to avoid than the twist in last night's episode of Mad Men. Glimpse the back page of the local tabloid, and the game is spoiled. Even if your self-imposed media blackout does succeed, watching a day-old ballgame is like doing yesterday's crossword. It just doesn't have the same crackle. At the same time, other entertainment options are becoming easier to fit into my schedule. If I'm not in the mood for the TV shows I've DVR'd, I can always stream a movie on Netflix.

Of course, you don't need to watch every minute of every game to be a fan. My complaint with sports doesn't hinge on the inflexible hours. There's also the issue of return on my investment. The games are relentless, the experience of them too often ephemeral. I will recall to my dying day the game I attended between the Celtics and Trailblazers in March 1992. It was Larry Bird's last great performance—a 49-point clinic that included a simply absurd three to send the game into overtime. But such moments are, by definition, rare. For every historic game I've seen, there have been hundreds of uneventful ones I can tell you literally nothing about.

I'm not denying the pleasures of spending an afternoon shelling sunflower seeds and watching the Brewers take on the Pirates—on the contrary. My problem is more with the games that promise to be momentous and prove otherwise. Every week, there seems to be a game of the century—a playoff opener, a clash of rivals, a prodigal son returning home. As a sports fan in good standing, I'm obliged to watch. But too frequently, such games fail to deliver on the hype. Even if they are entertaining in the moment, I know that after the passage of a few months, I'll have trouble recalling the action. What happened in the NFC championship game last year? I watched, but I don't remember a single detail. What's the point of devoting all of my free time to something so fleeting?

Big wins for the home team are always memorable, particularly in the postseason. But for every euphoric victory, there are dozens of crushing defeats. Even given the dominance of Boston's teams this decade, I'm not sure I experienced more pleasure than anguish as a sports fan in the aughts. I was at Yankee Stadium in 2003 when Aaron Boone hit his walk-off to win Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. That defeat—to say nothing of being forced to ride home on a 4 train lousy with jubilant Yanks fans—threw me into a brooding funk that didn't clear for days. I didn't get those days back just because the Sox took the series the following year. The Celtics' 2008 playoff march ended in a 17th banner—but only after two full months of hard-fought series with Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, and Los Angeles, weeks in which I limped through my daily life, haggard from late-night nail-biters. Was it worth it?

Die-hard fans will say, Yes, absolutely. I understand that. I understand that there's no thrill of victory without the agony of defeat—Red Sox fans know this as well as anyone. I recognize what I'm missing out on by giving up sports. I have enjoyed, on many occasions, the spontaneous camaraderie with complete strangers that's engendered by common allegiance to a sports team. I have felt a swell of civic pride when my home team has won a championship. I appreciate the aesthetic beauty of a well-executed backdoor cut.

For those reasons, I may yet return to the fold. Maybe I just need a break. Maybe Boston's run of championships this decade has left me complacent. But for the time being, I'm content passing by the sports section in the morning and the sports bar at night. During this year's American League Division Series, I happened upon the ninth inning of Game 3 between the Red Sox and the Angels and watched as Jonathan Papelbon imploded, giving up the go-ahead run and the series. In previous years, the loss would have ruined my night, if not my week. I would have watched the morose postgame press conference, forced myself to read Shaughnessey's post-mortem, and tried to cheer myself up by logging in to ESPN Insider to read free-agent gossip. This time around, while I empathized with the crestfallen Fenway faithful, I felt a long way away from those die-hard fans. It was a liberating feeling, not to care. I went and read a book.

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