Monday, June 12, 2006

What is the story?

I am pretty excited about the US vs Czech game today. As their path through the "group of death" begins, I am going to be very curious to see how they manage the experience. I spoke to a friend the other day who said "Of course, you know they are not going to get into the finals". Get into the finals? Even in the light of their great showing of 2002, getting into the round of 16 will be a great feat this year and we cannot burden our team with the expectation that advancing is a given. Of course, I have heard the usual comments about how boring soccer is, and I listen with great sympathy as the person lays out for me, without insight, their inability to concentrate for longer than it takes for the TV to show the replay of a football play. People are entitled to their opinions, of course, but these types of comments, combined with some assumptions we make about Ultimate, have made me wonder about what it is that attracts us to sports and makes us invest, as fans, in the experience of athletics and cheering for our teams. I think we think we know....but I am not so sure that we do.

If you were to ask most people what they like about watching sports, they might say "because it is exciting". I agree, but what, exactly, makes sports exciting? If we go back to soccer, it would seem that a big problem is the lack of scoring, and this is what makes it unexciting. If the amount of scoring was tied inexorably to excitement, however, baseball would have died a long time ago (I know that some folks think it has) and arena football would be the most popular thing on TV. I strongly disagree with the assumption that scoring equates to excitement. For me, excitement is a build-up to, and the anticipation of, future events. The most obvious is the pitcher holding the ball with the bases loaded with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. There were points during the 04 Yankees-Boston playoff series when the drama (read: excitement) was almost unbearable, and I am not a big fan of either baseball or the Red Sox. I was a fan of baseball during that series, though, and I have no idea what the scores were in those games. Ultimate has a similar moment as well, of course, and waiting for the pull can be great drama. This is not to say that photo finishes are the only means of generating excitement, they are just the most obvious. Watching great execution or an athlete struggling to overcome the odds are also obviously exciting in their own right (although the Olympics TV coverage has shamelessly disintegrated into trying to generate "human interest" stories for every single athlete. After a while it becomes humorous and the attempt to tweak our heartstrings, and interest, fails). I can see why we want to tie scoring to excitement. It is an easy and objective means of measurement. Perhaps we should cherish and appreciate just how difficult it is to hit a round ball with a round bat or kick the ball into a soccer net. Perhaps the difficulty of these tasks is what makes the sport beautiful. Personally, I view the rule changes in hockey, which have lead to routine 9-5 scores, as an insult and has made me view watching hockey as a "doctored" or, perhaps, patronizing experience.

We also use athleticism as a means for explaining enjoying sports, and I do not think it is a coincidence that this is another parameter that can be objectively measured. A few weeks ago, I was teaching Ultimate clinics in a local high school, and the head of the PE Dept, who has become a friend, said to me during a conversation about kids playing sports, "Baseball isn't even a's a pastime". This after praising Ultimate. Again, baseball is a convenient example of how it can't be raw athleticism that attracts us to sports. I think, in the Ultimate world, we frequently hear the assumption that fans want to see the most athletic (read: the men) Ultimate and that this is the only possible way to promote our sport. I don't know about you, but in one of the rare displays of women playing Ultimate on Ultivillage in the NACS video, I was much more interested in Miranda breaking the mark with a low release forehand than I was with the first Open clip of some bad choice floaty huck into the end zone. I have said it before, but the 99 women's world cup was as compelling, athletically speaking, as any men's world cup I have watched. Other examples of why watching the best athletes play is not the sole factor in determining our interest as fans are the popularity of college football and college basketball.

Of course, athleticism and scoring goals factor into our enjoyment of sports, but I think it is good stories that really draw us in as we enjoy drama, suspense, context, and history as much in sports as we do in a good book or movie. Perhaps this is why sports can make great movies and books. One of the better sports books I have read recently is "The Last Amateurs" by John Feinstein. This is a great book about the Patriot League in college basketball. It is a compelling story about the least athletic and most unknown college players in the country. We have great stories in Ultimate that encompass all the elements of great drama. NY(KD) vs Boston(Moons) is perhaps the most famous. Hector wrote eloquently about the CUT vs Wisconsin rivalry in his blog. Lady Godiva's commitment to excellence and their ensuing success over the years. Red Tide over Darkhorse in 1998. Stanford women's Ultimate. Our stories are a serious asset, but they require knowledge and perspective on the part of the fans and it is challenging to make them familiar enough with the stories to buy in. My friend in the PE Dept said, "If baseball didn't have 150 years of history, we wouldn't care". Ultimate is young and we need to have patience for the time when the stories will be bolstered enough by context and history that every article in the newspaper and every program won't feel it has to present itself as an introduction to the sport.

Next week, my post will follow this post's lead and present the interesting stories for the upcoming Boston Invitational. In the meantime, I am going to spend this afternoon watching, with rare patriotism, our boys fight in the group of death. Will they emerge? I have no idea, but I am excited to see what happens.


parinella said...

Baseball doesn't value speed as highly as other sports do, but you try hitting a 98 mph fastball (or throwing, or standing up to one, for that matter).

Feinstein really captures a story well. I'd recommend anything that he wrote. Another story worth reading is "The Amateurs" by David Halberstam, about American rowers vying for the 1984 Olympics.

It's not the scoring that makes the difference, as slugfests and pitchers' duels (in any sport) can be exciting or boring. It depends on the virtuosity of the performance and whether there is enough of a balance between offense and defense that the spectator feels that either team can win. Soccer can seem boring because a 1-0 lead can be insurmountable, and the score can be largely unrelated to which team is better. Ultimate is at its worst when there is a big wind and upwind goals are scarce (maybe 1 or 2 per team in a game), and whoever wins is as much fluke as it is skill (if the teams are fairly even).

gcooke said...


Thanks for the comments. I am not sure if the "you" in the first sentence refers to me or the general readership, but I did acknowledge the difficulty of the skill of hitting a baseball....and the intrinsic interest that this creates.

The idea of balance between offense and defense and that the spectator needs to feel that either team can win is great point.


jtflynn said...

i just watched a few highlights of World Cup action and admired and reflected on some amazing goals (and a few hackjobs in a crowd.) Great offense can only really be appreciated when it faces stout defense. An amazing kick (or throw or catch) is really only amazing when it threads the needle. Seeing clear effort helps as well. If you're not clearly working hard for it, why should we admire it?

my 2 cents,

gcooke said...


Well said.

So the US World Cup story ended with a thud today. Time to turn my attention back to Ultimate stories.


RHL said...

The US ended with a thud.. but the Japan Australia game was awesome.. done 1-0.. seemingly insurmountable.. all of a sudden, Australia shows why they are picked to get out of their group in a great display of goal scoring to not only tie, but pull away. Just part of what makes Soccer great to watch.

David Lee Paraguay said...

What if a goal was 7 points and hitting the post or crossbar was 3? Then do you think people would think there is enough scoring? (Though with that scoring, we still lost 24-3 today.)

Watching the US beat Portugal, Mexico and lost to Germany in '02 were 3 of the most exciting sporting events I've ever seen.

Alex de Frondeville said...

I think having some skin in the game definitely adds to the excitement. I agree with you about the world cup '02. The US games were exciting, and I remember that every time the US would just miss scoring, or have a great opportunity, I would already have jumped to my feet in excitement. It was a totally visceral and uncontrollable reaction. And having them win a game was icing on the cake. If you replace the US with any other team and keep the games exactly the same, you would not feel nearly the same way. The same way for the Dallas-Heat NBA finals. Who cares? Even if the games were virtuoso, that would help, but still. But for the Dallas-San Antonio series, where there was HUGE history for Dallas against the Spurs, that added a large amount to the games, and the stellar play made the entire series incredibly exciting.

Sean said...

have some faith. they looked rusty and out of sync, not nearly the form they had in qualifying, but having played reyna, obrien and donovan together a little more now I think they will regroup and actually string some play through the midfield against Italy. A win saturday and we are fine. Beating the Czechs isnt the goal, getting out of the group is, nothing is over. It would be one thing if we had played well and lost 3-0, all we can do is improve.

Si said...

I think football is so popular the world over for a couple of reasons.

1) You don't need much to play - a football, a tennis ball, a rolled-up sock, a tin can, a rock. Whatever you can get hold of. You don't need special equipment, lines, 11-a-side to learn to play.

2) Most of a game, and most of a tournament / season, is dross.

The anticipation, like George says, is important, but more crucial for me is the very narrow margin between winning and losing that the low-scoring brings. Upsets are very common. One moment of genius or idiocy is enough to win or lose a match or a championship.

Football fans are in it for the bittersweet sense of injustice that losses bring (it was the ref, it was the broken metatarsal, it was the new ball). While I know next-to-nothing about US sports, perhaps Red Sox fans know the feeling...

(a Spurs fan - but nothing to do with San Antonio)

gcooke said...


Well said. Thanks for the reminder.


I think that in a well played game of Ultimate the rare break serves a similar function in terms of the margin between winning and losing. I think appreciation for the importance of the break is something that fans will be able to grasp and enjoy.


I was going to include something about geography and loyalty in my post, but I decided to focus on the other elements. I agree that this type of loyalty is an extremely important way in which fans buy in. I think that loyalty is most often city/state or country based. Rarely is it regional based (a few states or more). It is just to difficult to develop a sense of communal pride in an abstract collection of states. This is actually one of two concerns I have about MLU. This first relates directly to my post (which is not about soccer). Developing stories will be hard for the MLU as it exists outside the established structure of the season. At this point, the most substantial story is refs. Less substantial is the all-star aspect as I think it contributes to the sense that this event is somewhat of a sideshow. The other concern relates to your comment. It will be difficult to get fans to buy into this type of regional representation. This is not to say that I don't think that MLU should give it a shot.....I just have some concerns.


Joe's Brother said...

Hey George -

You know, if you keep appending "of Death" to nouns, it will at some point begin to lose meaning.

- Joe's Brother

gcooke said...


I claim no ownership of the "group of death". That is from pretty much every wc article about the us team.


Joe's Brother said...

G -

Fair enough. I don't have a lot of interest in soccer so I wasn't aware of the popular nickname.

I've played soccer, but not competitively. My main beef is with soccer enthusiasts, not the game itself, exactly. They frequently take the stance that the game is somehow inherently superior to all other sports. Their evidentiary support usually is the game's popularity. Why else would it be so popular if it weren't so great? Well, fact is, the game is not the most popular because is the greatest; it is the most popular because it is the simplest. In almost every other major sport you need some sort of specialized equipment or multiple pieces of equipment:

Baseball: ball, bat, minimum 3 people (bases & gloves?)
Basketball: Hoop and bouncing ball, minimum 2 people
Football: Large ball that's easily thrown, minimum 3 people, but more like 4
Hockey: Sticks, puck, minimum 2 people, but more like 3 or 4 (goal & ice?)

With soccer, all you need is 2 people and something you can kick (makeshift goals are easy to come by)! Hell, you don't even need arms to play.

I'm not saying soccer is great or that it sucks, just that its popularity is based in its simplicity, not its greatness. That's my main beef with it.

- JB

gcooke said...


It is interesting how we can take contrarian views in reaction to popular perception.

I tend to be a contrarian, and I have pretty much the opposite reaction as you, which is that we are so provincial here in the US that we take any opportunity to slam the sport.

So, different reactions. My reaction seems to be a bit less "worldly" as I have very little contact with the cult of soccer folks.


degs said...

George -- really liked the post. Nice tie-ins between WC action and Ultimate. The games I've seen in this World Cup have been sick ... not as good as the U.S. run in '02, but great so far. AUS-JPN was great, as was TNT-SWE (I thought). If Bruce et al can some how get by Italy it could make things interesting once again. As for the Group of Death tag, I believe most worldwide pundits assigned it to the Argentina pool (more teams in the top x), but it should have been -- and was, by some -- given to the U.S. pool with three teams in the top 12.

On an only loosely related note, I really like the World Cup tournament format.

As for books, How Soccer Explains the World by Frank Foer is quite good...

gcooke said...


Thanks for the comments. Its funny. Now that I have worked on formats a bunch I am not a big fan of the World Cup format. I don't like the random seeding draw, although it is hard to imagine doing real seedings. It might be cool if there was some kind of x-over.

I was at the library today and I saw that book......I guess I will have to get it now.


degs said...

Yeah, the random draw isn't that good.... but I think part of the reason they do it is to alleviate tensions. I mean, if Furious or DoG gets underseeded we get a bunch of whining. If Argentina or Italy is underseeded, we have strife, riots, etc. Aside from seeding I like the size, the grandeur, the simplicity. And then BOOM everything matters in the round of 16. No reward for winning your pool, no power pool. I'm not advocating this for us necessarily, but its elegance reminds me of NCAA hoops. (And not of, say, the NFL.)

ultymate said...

Best thing about soccer...No commercials because they advertise on the shirts. It takes 90 minutes to watch a 90 minute game(I know, minus halftime). Soccer also has no time-outs & minimal substitutions which I think puts more pressure on coaches to completely prepare the team prior to a match so the players no what do in all situations against their opponent. Also, unlike American sports, you don't have to be a giant to play high level soccer. Football, Bball, and baseball are sports filled with 6'0+" and grossly muscular athletes. I mean close to 400 pound linemen in football? that's not athletism. Football is so boring to watch because of the absurd amount of commercials, 40 second game clock, 6 total timeouts per half, coaches' challenges, commercial timeouts, an innumerable amount of rules, what else? Football has some world-class athletes but I do think all the things listed above haults them from truly showcasing their talents.

Soccer and ultimate are great sports for many reasons. For one, we don't have to be giants to play. There are players in ulty who can showcase great athletism and use their bodies differently than in any other sport out there. As ultimate grows I would like for it to use soccer as a model more than anything to create any new rules and game format, etc. It also would be interesting to compare Euopean, Australian, Japanese, & S.American rulebook to N.American rules. IS there any place on the internet where I could find rules from different countries to compare side-by-side?

gcooke said...


I agree with you about the seeding, and that the format, being so unforgiving, does lead to a minimal margin for error at certain points.


Interesting comments. I love the lack of commercials as well, and I do love the challenge of having to pay attention for long spans of time. There are times when I am watching the replays in football where I am not only bored by seeing it twice or three times, but I also feel like it is being dumbed down because the assumption is that we can't pay attention.

As far as the rules go, I am only aware of differences between the WFDF and UPA rules. Do countries like Australia and Sweden have their own set of rules?

degs said...

Have you all seen the FIFA web site's video highlights? They're really well done. Because the audience is international, there's no commentary -- only game and crowd noise. Nice replays of goals, near-goals, good saves.