Sunday, February 5, 2012

Football's Just Not a Radio Sport

photo by stfbfcvia PhotoRee

I've had occasion to listen to a number of Premier League games recently on the radio, courtesy of Siriux XM satellite radio (Channel 92) here in the States. Due to travel or schedule, and sometimes both, I've been away from my television during some part of the weekend's football happenings -- as happened again on Saturday for the early Arsenal vs Blackburn contest, kicking off at 8:00AM on the East Coast.  Not content to miss part of the action, and unable to watch all of it on my trusty digital video recorder due to other commitments, I resorted to the second best option: listening to some of the live action on satellite radio.

But I've found over time that it's a less than satisfying option, somewhat akin to labeling Ketchup a vegetable: it may meet the bare minimum requirements, but it's hugely unfulfilling at the same time, leaving you longing for something more substantive.   The lack of a coherent understanding of the action on the pitch isn't the fault of the announcers, but is due instead to the inherent limitations of the medium itself.  Football's just not a radio sport: the free-flowing form of the game lends itself well to the visuals of television, but radio broadcasts leave me feeling a bit sterile and uninformed.

This is not to say radio doesn't work for all sport. In fact, there are several sports in which radio is almost as powerful as television at capturing the feeling of the game and the action taking place.  Take baseball, for example. Baseball generally unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace, and the rhythms and flow of the sport serve the verbal medium extremely well. All of the action initially takes place between two players -- pitcher and batter -- and it's only when the ball is put into play that the announcer needs to give any additional context.  With its steady mix of action and inaction, pitch and then wait, pitch and wait, with the backdrop of strategy and suspense building up inning by inning, radio has served baseball well since the very beginning of broadcast sports.

But football's another matter all together. Listening to football on the radio is like watching Avatar on a small screen -- you're getting well less than the full effect. There's too many players, and the pitch is too large for the announcers to properly relay all of the action that's unfolding. So much of the action in the game is off the ball that there's no way it can be properly captured and conveyed in real time.

Rivaling football for the worst radio sports are basketball and hockey -- but those two sports have a crucial advantage: there are far few player in action at the same time, and the playing surface is much, much smaller -- you're either in the opponent's end or your not, you're attacking or defending, with very little "midfield" play.  This smaller surface -- be it a rink in hockey, or a court in basketball -- lends itself to a certain announcing rhythm that tells the listener all they need to know: "Wade to Bosh, back out to Wade, dribble left, looks, pass into LeBron, kicked back out to Wade, he shoots...  He scores!" The simplicity and smallness of the game are radio's friends in this circumstance.

And it's not to say that radio has no use at all in football.  I listen most mornings to at least some portion of The Football Show, a radio sports talk show focused on the beautiful game, with analysis and commentary provided by ex-Swansea, Lazio and Cosmos' man Giorgio Chinaglia and football promoter and former NY Red Bull General Manager Charlie Stillitano.  I enjoy the easy back and forth banter between Chinaglia and Stillitano, and like hearing their thoughts on the prior evening's action.  They also get a variety of regular, top-notch guests -- a certain Sir Alex Ferguson among them. 

But it's live football on the radio that leaves me cold, and wanting more, waiting for something I can sink my teeth into.  On days such as yesterday it's better than nothing, but it's also nothing to write home about.

This is farlieonfootie for February 5.  Enjoy the Super Bowl.

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