Second-screen viewing is ruining sports fandom in public places

In an effort to “be more social” and to “not live the rest the rest of my life in self-imposed isolation, pretending that my aloneness is somehow artistic, somehow more than just really, really depressing,” I chose to watch the opening game of the 2015 NBA Finals at my favorite local watering hole, assuming that doing so would afford me numerous opportunities to make friends with fellow basketball fanatics. I envisioned myself cheering alongside strangers, perhaps even hugging — note: not bro-hugging, because bro-hugging is for cowards — random people in celebration of big plays, all of us at the bar coming together to form a temporary but meaningful community.

Instead I sat alone, talked to no one, and slunk out after the final buzzer with a stomach full of discounted Pabst and a heart full of tumbleweed-rolling-by-in-the-desert-moonlight-as-the-winds-moan emptiness.

Of course, there’s a pretty good chance that I just don’t emit an inviting and sociable aura — my resting face is a combination of a scowl and sad, middle-distance-affixed eyes, after all — but that assessment requires a level of self-awareness and -critique, so instead I’d rather place blame on Society and The Way People Act These Days, because I am both childish and curmudgeonly like that. And since there’s no juicier and cheaper target than Smartphone-Obsessed Millennials, I’ll set my hot-take crosshairs on them and all the baseness that they represent.

May 4, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; A fan looks at her phone before the Houston Rockets play the Los Angeles Clippers in game one of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Thus: Second screen viewing is ruining the social component of watching sports with strangers *cue Funkmaster Flex bombs and fire sounds*.

Look, if you’re watching the game at home by yourself, only choosing to wear pants because having fabric on your legs provides ample space upon which you can rub the Doritos dust from your fingertips, then by all means fire up some must-have app — For the true fans! — log in to one of your many thriving social media accounts, and split your attention between your TV and your tablet/smartphone/laptop/whatever. You’re in your own home; do what you want. But if you’re out in a public space that’s clearly meant to encourage a communal viewing experience, then put your phone away and be present in the damn moment. Make the effort to value the people around you, not the bundle or circuitry in your pocket.

It’s not that technology is inherently evil, but rather that technology can be isolating. A bar full of people with their noses buried in their respective smart-devices isn’t a tell-tale sign of the Decline of Humanity, but it does create an environment in which communicating with people — and not even necessarily with people whom you know! — thousands of miles away is more encouraged than communicating with people sitting right next to you. The underlying assumption is that more is always better when it comes to intaking information; thus talking on Twitter, for example, is preferable to talking with the person sitting two-stools away from you, because Twitter is a breathtaking deluge of information, spewed out by millions of users, whereas the person sitting two-stools away from you is just a singular entity, possessing a limited amount of sharable information. In the digital age we live in, it is permissible to ignore your physical surroundings because it is assumed that whatever you’re consuming via your smartphone is more valuable than anything that can be learned from whatever physical space you’re currently occupying, because a physical space contains limitations — for example, only a set amount of people, thus only a set amount of individual voices, can fill it — whereas digital space is limitless.

There’s a dynamic with regard to personal agency going on here, and it’s one marketers and app creators love exploiting. Because there are many aspects of the world around you that are beyond your control, such as the other people patronizing the bar, you are told that it is important and good to isolate yourself from that world in favor of (a digital) one in which you possess ultimate power. You curate your Twitter feed to ensure that what you read is to your liking; you pick which social app most fits your wishes and needs; you can choose the information you take in, learn about. This is not a ground-breaking observation, and the desires at play here — the desire for control, the desire for having whims catered to, etc. — are understandable, human ones, but the cost of fulfilling those desires is that the isolation caused by in-public second-screen viewing hinders you from receiving the delights and pleasures that the “actual” world around you has to offer. What you gain in control you lose in in-the-moment receptivity and attention.

The paradoxical twist in terms of how second-screen viewing is encouraged and sold to the general public is that it plays on a fear that it, as a method of consumption, actually causes: isolation. You are told that unless you are on Twitter during the big game, you are missing out on “what people are saying” (as if it’s only on Twitter that conversations about the big game are occurring). You are told that if you don’t have the latest hot app for your favorite team, then you are at a “disadvantage” when it comes to being “a true fan” (as if fandom is contingent upon keeping second-by-second tabs on every bit of consumable information). In short, you are told that by not participating in this second-screen culture, you run the risk of isolating yourself, of becoming an outsider, of becoming somehow deficient. Fears regarding outsiderness run deep, thus they are easy for brands to capitalize on. Are you worried about being isolated from the world? Then buy our product! We are the only viable path to connectedness and community.

When it comes to sports, marketers have an especially easy time encouraging fans to abandon the physical world in favor of the digital one, because they, the marketers, can appeal to sports fans by using the idea that it is only through online connectivity — read: only through certain brands and products and services — that they, the fans, can achieve their fullest fandom potential. And sports fans love little more than being “true” fans, somehow better than those other, “untrue” fans. In general, sports fans desire information and data, and nothing caters to this desire quite like an app or a social media platform, which is to say nothing can bombard your average fan with information and data quite like an app or a social media platform. You get real-time statistics! You get pundits’ thoughts on a game as the game happens! You get to be “in the know” before your poor, iPhone-less friend gets to be in the know, and that gives you social cache! These are sold not as things that you merely want, but as things that you need if you want to be a “true” fan, a “real” fan. Lacking these things, you are probably just some know-nothing bandwagon p.o.s., and there’s nothing considered more loathsome to be when it comes to social identity within sports culture (well, except for being a Yankees fan who wasn’t born in New York).

Mar 4, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins fans take cell phone photos of center Maxim Lapierre (40) before the game against the Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

I’d like to proffer, however, that when it comes to being a “real” fan, it is more important (and more enjoyable) to be a participant in a community than it is to be a receptacle of endless statistics and information who then regurgitates that information back out into the void of cyberspace in hopes of garnering more likes and retweets; in conjunction, it is misguided to value online communities at the expense of real-world ones (i.e. the people sitting with you at the bar), because the real-world communities are (likely) more representative of what (likely) made you a sports fan in the first place. Speaking for myself, I didn’t become a sports fan because I craved learning about what Athlete X had to say about Athlete Y, or because I desired to know every statistic for every player in history, or because I couldn’t get through my day without knowing about the latest trade involving mid-level players. I became a sports fan because I liked going to social gatherings where my local team’s game was the focal point of the event, where everyone was cheering together as a communal unit sharing a common interest, experiencing the highs and lows of sports as one. I became a sports fan because when I was ten I got to rush the field after a big victory and dance at midfield with total strangers before running back into the stands and hugging my dad in celebration. In short, I became a sports fan because of the sensations inherent to the physical world, the world that involves shared-space: the smell of bratwursts from the tailgaters, the screams and sighs of the crowd, the high-fives and celebratory hugs I traded with people I’d never see again. And I’m going to guess that those things likely made you a fan, too.

Yes, this is veering into scolding, and I recognize how obnoxious that is, but I truly think there’s something about the joys — the tangible, physical joys — of watching sports in public that’s being forgotten (or at least de-emphasized) in today’s second-screen viewing environment. People at your local bar may all look up at the TV together when, say, a basket is scored, but then they talk about that basket online, racing to be the first to post a GIF or fire off a joke, even though they are surrounded, physically surrounded, by fellow fans, by people with things to say and share. In today’s world, many of the best and worst parts of being a sports fan — the celebration, the frustration, the sadness — are transferred into a digital space, which blunts and distorts those experiences, turning them from visceral, emotional responses — something honest and human — into something more performative. It creates an environment in which the individual — what you consume, how much you consume, what you put back out, what you earn in terms of social media kudos — is prioritized over the group, and even though you are told by marketers that engaging in second-screen viewing, even when in public, is essential to being a real fan, or a true fan, the truth is that “real” and “true” are (or at least should be, in my opinion) less about maximizing your individual enjoyment, which only serves to benefit and elevate you, and more about directly participating in the emotional ebbs and flows of the people with whom you’re sharing a physical space, be that space a local bar or Section C, Row 26 of a stadium. I think an essential part of being a sports fan is being present in the moment, surrendering part of yourself and your ego to the the environment around you, to a cause (even a silly one, like rooting for laundry) greater than yourself, and I think that the rise of second-screen viewing, especially when conducted in public, and especially when conducted in public at the expense of talking with strangers, hinders that surrendering, that getting lost in the moment, and instead encourages individualization, thus isolation. When you are “watching” a game while inhaling information via the latest app, or via your social media account, you are not connected to the world: you are connected to your device, to yourself.

Of course, who am I to judge how other people choose to watch sports? (Well, I suppose I am the one writing this, so passing judgement is within my purview.) Truthfully, if you want to go out to a bar to watch the NBA Finals, and if doing so means that you have to be on your smartphone the entire time, then that’s your call. I’d just like to suggest that maybe you put your phone away for a bit, that maybe you talk to the strangers at the booth behind you instead of an anonymous dude on Twitter, that maybe you celebrate with the people within your physical reach as opposed to your digital one. You may be surprised at what you rediscover about what made watching sports fun in the first place.