The Accidental Fan: The Game Day Experience
You might wonder why people enjoy going to live concerts. If you can get better sound quality in the comfort of your own home, why would you venture out, driving, riding or even flying long distances just to be pushed and jostled and deafened? However, someone who likes going to concerts might tell you that the live performance, the energy of the performers and the crowd make it worth it. Going to a sports game is much the same. Why wouldn’t you just watch on TV? You get commentary! You can actually see what is going on! You get instant replays! But there is something unique and energizing about being in the stadium or arena with a crowd. The action is closer, people all around you are reacting to their team and you may be deeply affected by those reactions.
For example, even leaving the park can be an experience much more exciting than simply turning off your television. The difference between leaving Fenway when the Red Sox have won and when they have lost is almost tangible. Even that varies when the score was close until the end and when it is obvious that the Sox will win before the bottom of the ninth. That’s when everyone heads home early. In contrast, when the Sox lose a home game, there is a sense of dejection and sadness; everyone is hanging their heads as they leave the park. A close win incites a sense of relief, elation and celebration, as if at the end of the inning, everyone has jumped out of their seats to dance as they leave. And, as most people are still at the park by the end in that scenario, there is a mad rush for the exits. A game that is not close will result in people trickling out, slowly at first then all at once. I always stay until the end, and when the stragglers finally do leave, and “RED SOX WIN!” is projected over the outfield, there is a sense of acceptance. Everyone gets up much more calmly, and because people have already left, there is a sense of laziness considering that there aren’t any crowds to fight as they head home. This is only my interpretation, and perhaps it has been exaggerated for simplicity, but this is not the only case of collective energy.
Personally, I feel this energy differently at a hockey game. If you have read my column before, you know that I have a lot of fun with the fights that almost always break out in hockey games. They are an excellent example of being able to feel the energy in the crowd. When a bad fight breaks out, I always feel as if a simultaneous, collective gasp and “Go get ‘em!” has rippled across the stands. Yelling in general in hockey is something you have to experience while attending a game. People scream at their team to fight, they scream obscenities, and rarely even some encouragement. My mother, a frequent at Bruins games, has been known to get into arguments with hulking men who may or may not have had a few beers. She tells them they need to “Stop yelling at Tuukka! He is your goalie too, so you need to encourage him.” Frequently, this results in a moment of shame for the Tuukka-hater, followed by them screaming at the other team’s goalie instead. This bizarre dynamic is something that really must be experienced in person. It’s almost as if they have to get their energy out by yelling at someone.
Another example of an energy gauge is when audience members attempt to start “the wave.” If a crowd is feeling disinterested or lazy, it often seems that one section will try to start the wave out of boredom. In this case, it often does not go past the first couple of rows. The people in the following rows see it coming and promptly decide that it is not worth the effort to stand up in order to keep this thing going. In that case, the wave dies a sudden, excruciating death. Alternatively, if a crowd is extremely invested and people start the wave out of excitement, it often gets more momentum and continues a few times around the stadium. One time, I was at a Red Sox game that was probably a better workout than “leg day” at the gym for this very reason. I think that time, the wave only lost momentum as people grew too tired to get out of their seats! When the whole place is participating, one can truly feel the energy in the stadium. It is quite literally being exerted in excitement. On the other hand, when the wave is killed in its crib, it feels to me like the embodiment of “meh.” Watching it come your way and thinking, “Oh no, this is not worth my time,” can be quite draining. No matter what, it’s always a positive or negative energy feedback loop at games.
Whether or not a crowd is invested in a game can also change one’s overall enjoyment. At a recent state team hockey game, I witnessed the drag of a bored crowd in a more intimate arena in Portland, Maine. The crowd was so apathetic for the first period that not only did people shut down an attempt at the wave before it had even begun, but until partway through the second quarter, there was very little reaction to anything. It felt almost like we were watching an empty arena. Even when the other team scored, a fight broke out and we were told to “Make some noise!” there was basically no reaction. However, as the game got more intense and people began to get more invested, it was like I was attending a completely different game! Whereas before I had been slouching in my chair, I was suddenly on the edge of my seat gasping and screaming with the rest of the now-captive audience. So, why would anyone want to go to a live game? You go to see the players in action, quickly realize you would get a better view from your couch at home and decide nonetheless that it’s worth staying just for the crowd.