How evolution is adding extra points to sport
Live coverage of major sports events is no longer confined to radio and tv broadcasts. But the most interesting dimension that the web brings to the games defies the logic of its evolution.
|BBC [sport]||Planet Rugby|
|National Football League||Major League Baseball|
As I watched a Six Nations rugby international on television the other weekend, I tried to find out how websites were being used to bring something extra to sport. The answer surprised me, though it should not have done because it is always a mistake to second-guess the web’s evolution. And evolution it is, albeit at a rate that would have left Darwin scratching his head.
England was playing France, not very successfully. I sat with my laptop computer, searching various sites to see what added most to the TV broadcast. Like an increasing number of people, I was taking a ‘two screen’ approach to the serious business of sport.
Mixed results as a substitute
But first I checked what I could have done had I not been near a television. Could I have watched the match? In theory. The BBC site was advertising live video coverage, but I got a repeated ‘network error’ message. Later I watched highlights, though even with a broadband connection it was like staring through a window that was being washed by heavy rain. The BBC tries to counter this by offering options that combine a small ‘screen’ (which gives better quality) with various text-based features. I don’t know if the transmission problem was specific to my bit of the internet, but in any event it would have been a strain to follow the game live. Until broadband gets much faster, the web is a poor substitute for television.
It is certainly a substitute for radio, though, and I know expats round the world will have been listening to the commentary from the same BBC site. That is one evolutionary development, but not the most interesting.
Evolution is about what doesn’t happen, as well as what does. Some things work, some things do not, and it is difficult to use theory to say which will do what.
Advances and tactical switches
I have been following how the web handles sports events since about 1996, and have seen almost as much retreat as advance. During the 1998 football World Cup, Soccernet offered a gizmo that tracked main moves on an electronic ‘pitch’ and blew a whistle when something exciting happened. You won’t find that now – the nearest survivor is a text commentary that describes key moves, posting them two or three minutes behind the action. As both the BBC and Planet Rugby continue to provide this service, and something similar is a feature of match coverage on the official National Football League and Major League baseball sites in the US, it must have survived the evolutionary test, though I am not sure who is using it.
In theory, the best use of the web in sport is to provide more detail than the TV could hope to. As a player does something spectacular or daft, I should be able to click on a link and find out all about him. Planet Rugby lists the players, but offers no details. The BBC’s team guide is irritatingly incomplete. Only the official site for the tournament has a decent write-up of each player. But it otherwise lacks the immediacy of its rivals, so I doubt it was heavily used during the match itself.
Voices from the crowd
So much for theory. By contrast, a use that theory would have struggled to predict is going wild. Live chat is an established feature of the web, but I am amazed by the way it has created a whole new world.
Planet Rugby Chat is a forum where members can make or exchange comments on the sport. It has had 865,351 posts since it started (I think in 1998). During the England-France game more than 300 posts were published about the match itself. They were not erudite – more the kind of comment you would hear in a pub or bar: “Unbelievable! Isn’t there anyone in England who can kick the bloody ball?”
Digging away I found myself in the wacky world of chatrooms, which are indeed rather like bars. A difference, which helped me, was that I could click through to find more about the chatters, from the number of postings they made to their hobbies. Some even gave their real names.
As in a pub, there were not many people doing the talking. As the match ended, there were just 22 members in the forum, with about 80 people like me keeping watch. The 22 were, however, extraordinarily busy. According to the stats, Jake has made 11,182 posts in total, averaging 18.94 a day, Bug Bruv has made 8,983 posts since November 2003. These are cyberchatterboxes. The flip side of this is that chat rooms are rather exclusive –many people would doubtless have liked to join in, but were put off by the banter flying across the electronic bar.
Of course, it is not like a pub at all when it comes to geography. These people are scattered all over the world. Alex is a 23 year old South African woman who moved to the UK a year ago, “more fool me” (while they are not all men, the talk is all ‘laddish’). ‘Rio’ is a 45-year-old Englishman who runs a pub in Brazil and has two parakeets. He gives a link to his pub’s website.
Why has Planet Rugby succeeded where the vast majority of online forums have failed (the BBC equivalent is poorly used)? I suspect the answer is complex – too much so to be predicted by theory. If you want to know what works on the web, just keep watching – but remember, it is all evolving a lot faster than it did on the Galapagos.
First published on 23 February, 2005