I wonder how many sports fans, who spend their evenings glued to the box watching Wimbledon or the Football World Cup, have ever asked themselves whether it’s better to watch on television or live at the court or stadium. I realise it’s an academic question but, as I hope you’ll soon discover, it’s also an interesting one.
The answer hinges on what you need to see to appreciate how well or poorly the game is played. In other words, how easily can you see the field of play and the way players relate to each other and, therefore, how effectively can you judge the strategy they are deploying and its effectiveness? This is, after all, how you decide whether they’re playing well or badly.
Now, in football, where you have 22 players spread across an area of roughly 7,800 square metres, television has a problem showing them in a single wide shot. The figures become small, distant and hard to distinguish. Although in close-up this problem is resolved what you then see are individuals or small groups. What you miss is their position vis-a-vis the rest.
So to show football television deploys a multiplicity of cameras. Together they provide a collage of shots comprising individual players, small groups, bigger scrums, half the field, the full field, etc. It’s quick, clever and talented vision-mixing that creates a verisimilitude of the game in the stadium. Done well, it works. Done poorly, it diminishes the game.
The conclusion is obvious: Football is best viewed live. Your eyes can provide a better understanding of the game than any combination of camera lenses.
Tennis, on the other hand, is different. The court is far smaller. There are only two or four players. More importantly, a single television camera can cover the full court without reducing the players to pygmies and distancing the action.
This means tennis is easy to televise. In fact, the box gives you an immediacy you may not have if you are sitting in the cheaper seats. And certainly you don’t need to crane your neck or swing it from side to side, which you would have to from the side of the court. This is why tennis has record ratings. It’s a made-for-TV sport!
Let me give you a little illustration. You can watch a serve from behind the serving player and still appreciate its speed, angle of descent and positioning on the opposite side of the net. Similarly, a sizzling cross-court return that leaves the recipient stranded at the wrong end can be comfortably viewed on a single wide shot. You don’t need multiple cameras, which always splice the action, to understand what’s happened.
Not so in football. If a player dribbles the ball across the length of the field, a single wide shot would shrink him and the action to an irritating miniature. Yet only such a shot can show how the rest of the field is placed. Consequently, to show the action clearly and in better size, TV resorts to multiple shots of varying size. But that means you may not always get a sense of where the other players are and what challenge they pose.
Now, today, if you watch the Wimbledon men’s final — and I hope that’ll be your choice rather than the scrum from Brazil — you should be better able to understand why tennis is so gripping. As you feel the magic of Wimbledon sweep over you, remember it’s, actually, the impact of television!
(The views expressed by the author are personal.)