It’s the Champions League final on Saturday night. I’ll be at a wedding. Meanwhile, my boyfriend will be attending a black tie dinner. I think I’m a bit more excited about my evening than he is(!)… but it leaves us both with a football-shaped Sky Plus conundrum. One of the best things about TV is being able to record programmes, so that you can successfully coordinate a social calendar alongside the year’s biggest televised sporting events. But what’s the best way to watch Ronaldo and co. play after the game has finished? Know the score and just enjoy the game, or avoid interacting with any other football-loving human all evening and go through the tension and excitement of the action on time delay?
Of course, this isn’t a new problem. Home video recording of television programmes began to happen more widely in the 1960s and 70s. A few people reading this might remember the ‘Likely Lads’ episode where Bob and Terry are determined not to find out the football results and end up seeking refuge at the hairdressers. (You can click on this link to watch a short clip from the episode.) There’s still the classic line at the end of the Ten O’clock News every Saturday night: “If you don’t want to know the scores, look away now!”. These days, anyone who has managed to get all the way through to Match of the Day without seeing or hearing about a result has done well considering the countless avenues modern media uses to get to us. Twitter, Facebook, the Internet, the radio, TV… and that’s if your mate hasn’t mentioned it to you via a phone call or text message.
In some sports, I’m convinced it might be better to know the result beforehand. For example, most of the time, the first and last laps are the only bit of Formula 1 races that are worth watching. That’s where the drama, the mass overtaking, the minor crashes and the glory happen. So I quite like watching those parts of a Grand Prix without it being a killjoy to know in advance whether it will be Vettel, Hamilton or Alonso spraying Champagne from the podium at the end of the race. I have definitely watched football, rugby and hockey matches where I wished afterwards that I had known it would be low scoring and highly boring, and that I had would have subsequently decided against wasting a couple of hours of my life on.
An anonymous source tells me that in beach volleyball, no one cares about the result before, during or after a game. Does this little joke objectify women diving about in bikinis and buff men showing off their tans? Maybe. That said, I watched some beach volleyball live during the Olympics in London and even I can remember more of the half-time dancing and the crowd doing the Conga (during the points) than the games themselves…
In other sports, a lot of the fun of watching is in not knowing what will happen. Think of an amazing Twenty20 cricket run chase or most tennis matches involving the modern greats. You can appreciate the skills on display even more vividly when you are experiencing something of the tension and pressure of the situation yourself. Although it was awful, hide-behind-the-sofa viewing for most of the game, watching Manchester United becoming champions of Europe with an astounding comeback against Bayern Munich in 1999 wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t suffered the first 90 minutes in real time beforehand.
A mate of mine regularly records rugby matches to watch later if he can’t watch them live, on the grounds that knowing the result ruins the game: it becomes “sport without the tension”. He says that he is often successful, but it relies on some rules: no Internet, no radio (not even traffic info!) and asking anyone he speaks to not to mention anything about rugby. These measures may sound extreme, but if that’s what it takes to maintain excitement in sport as a busy spectator then it must be worth it.
Perhaps the choice depends on whether you have a vested interest in a result. Sometimes, as a supporter, your desperation for your team to win (and the inevitable pain if they don’t) means it just isn’t worth avoiding the prior knowledge that is available to you if you choose to access it. Additionally, in today’s world of social media and being hit by a constant flow of information, it can be quite a challenge not to find out anyway.
In the end, I suppose it all depends what you want out of watching an event. If the game itself – whether it ends up being the most exciting comeback ever or the dullest fixture in the history of sport – is the thing that’s more important to you, it will probably always be worth watching without prior knowledge. Other people may be able to enjoy the performance, the skill and the spectacle independently from the drama and emotion of it all. Then there are those who just can’t take not knowing something that is knowable.
Ironically enough, I watched Liverpool’s Champions League Final comeback live in 2005 alongside the bride whose wedding I’ll be celebrating on Saturday when this year’s final is being played. Although it was a bit painful to see Liverpool’s dramatic second-half comeback from 3-0 down (for a Man United fan anyway), I think it’s fair to say it wouldn’t have felt quite the same to watch the game later, knowing it was going to happen. I’m not quite sure what we will do on Saturday. It will be tough to entirely block out the outside world until Sunday morning… but maybe it would be worth it.