Though pro football has never been more popular on television, attendance in NFL stadiums has decreased for four straight years. The arguments in favor of watching at home are plentiful: It’s cheaper, easier to park, and the view on your HD flat screen is better than from your stadium seat. Despite all of those obvious advantages, attendance has been similarly pitiful at my apartment this season. If my football get-togethers were games, they'd be blacked out more often than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Why can't I get anyone to watch football with me?
Your first guess is probably that my friends don't enjoy my company, and you'd be right. But I also find myself turning down other people’s invitations and opting for a hermitic approach to football Sundays. It used to be a given that my friends would meet up at someone’s house each week. And this year, only four out of 12 of us bothered to show up for our fantasy draft barbecue. The Bowling Alone effect isn’t just for participatory sports any more. In this age of fantasy football and DVR, rooting for your favorite team has become a pastime that’s best enjoyed by yourself, hunkered down in a fandom isolation chamber. We are now millions of audiences of one.
Some of the reasons I prefer to keep to myself are as old as fandom itself. The inherent shamefulness of overzealous rooting—guilty as charged—causes me to duck out on social obligations, especially when I know the game will be ruined by a fun anchor who's indifferent about sports. (I’ve never understood blind rage until I watched my beloved New England Patriots lose in the playoffs while some killjoy was talking about how football is emblematic of our violent American culture.) The small talk, the elaborate food rituals, and the children milling about all take away from the experience of watching the game. Even so, I’ve always been willing to put up with human contact, as the benefits of a group football hangout usually outweighed the negatives.
Technology has changed that calculus. I no longer need to be in the same room with my friends to share a collective moment of euphoria. Now I can simply share my delight on Twitter or Facebook and collect dozens of electronic high-fives instantaneously. I spend more time now interacting with my friends digitally than in the flesh; it’s only logical that we'd take that approach to sports as well. Right now, for example, my friend is G-chatting me about how much he hates Tim Tebow, while another handful are complaining about their teams on our fantasy league board and a third group is texting me about the Patriots game. In a living room, you'd call that noise. Here at home, it's a lot easier to manage. We're essentially watching TV together—why do we need to be in the same room?
As home-theater technology has filtered down to the masses, we’ve all become captains of our own sport-y spaceships. DVRs have become much more commonplace in just the last few years, with the percentage of DVR-equipped homes increasing from 14 percent to 42 percent since 2007. HD has also become mandatory for sports fans, and diehards can now follow multiple games at once thanks to NFL Sunday Ticket and the revolutionary RedZone channel.
Now that a personalized, crystal-clear picture is at everyone's fingertips, it is pure torture to let someone else man the controls. Watching my friends operate a DVR makes me feel like a nervous backseat driver. When I'm at my in-laws’ house, for instance, I have to watch the Patriots game in a separate room because my father-in-law will inevitably flip over to golf during commercials. Personally, I like to pause the action every time there's a stoppage in play or when, say, the damn Patriots defense allows yet another third down conversion. (That happens a lot.) After I hit pause, I'll walk around the house a few times grinding my teeth. If I did that with company around, it would inevitably lead to someone complaining about being behind real time and somebody else whining that he can’t check his fantasy numbers without spoiling the game that’s now on pause. And they would be right to complain, if those hypothetical people still came over to watch football. Thankfully, I’ve scared them all away.
On the few recent occasions that I have dragged myself to a friend's house, or vice versa, we spend most of the time staring at our smart phones and tablets. What exactly is the benefit of physical proximity in that scenario? “Check out this funny tweet I just sent” doesn't really count as conversation, does it? And there's always the one poor guy who didn't bring his laptop and has to continually ask one of us to check his scores for him. He might as well be watching the game through a hole in a wooden fence like a cartoon character from the 1930s.
This together/alone approach isn’t unique to sports viewership. Consider how video-game producers have moved away from split-screen games and multicontroller hubs and toward online multiplayers where everyone logs in from their couch. A generation of children is being raised with the idea that “hanging out” means logging on and “playing” with your friends online. Internet porn is similarly encroaching on our actual sex lives. It's often more convenient to just get the job done digitally, by yourself, at your leisure.
Is technology like this isolating, or does it allow us to connect with more people more often? In this case, I'd say it’s both at once. I still want to interact with my friends through sports, but I can reach more of my fellow Patriots fans through a single tweet than I ever could have back in the analog era. There are plenty of days, though, when my increasingly personalized approach to sports-watching makes interpersonal connections harder to achieve. If I’m watching on DVR delay, I have to avoid Facebook and texts and chats so as not to spoil the game. That means I’m eschewing both the real-life social experience and the techno-social one—but, hey, at least I don't have to make small talk during the beer ads.
I’ll leave one final thought for the sports philosophers. Fandom is the quintessentially shared experience, the modern expression of the primal collective. But if I’m cheering for Wes Welker by myself—in my house, watching on tape delay, with my phone turned off—does it even make a sound?