Out of Bounds

Sport’s head-first slide from the pitch to the pixels.

As I write this, the streets of my city are dotted with people proclaiming their happy commitment to a public narrative by all wearing the same jersey. Our team is in the running! For weeks it was touch and go. Spirits were buoyed and dashed and buoyed again. But as our team confronted the odds, our civic leaders enjoined us to show our faith, urge them on and buy their merchandise. A stretch of downtown has been bedecked in their sigil. The mayor himself endorsed wearing the raiment of the team rather than business attire. Office cubicles display the team colours; cars stream their pennant in the wind.

No matter that they have not actually won anything yet. So far their big accomplishment is not being eliminated. But in the balmy days following a brutal winter, hereabouts it is victory enough. In the ale houses and on the radio call-in shows, the people are as yet joyous, even as they rail at the perfidy of our opponents and pour scorn on the humbled cities whose teams were found wanting, whose season has come to an end, and who are condemned to a life of misery, shame and recrimination (hello, Toronto).

The invitation to be swept up in the enthusiasm extends—perhaps especially—to those who normally do not care for professional athletics. It is one thing not to follow the fortunes of the local team, but to disdain the good feeling of one’s fellows in such an atmosphere starts to look surly, if not suspect. Helpfully, now that our team is in contention, the local broadsheet is running a feature called “I’m With the Bandwagon,” a cheat sheet for the “fair-weather fan.” As Robert Warshow observed in the Partisan Review in 1948, there are times when modern egalitarian societies make it “an obligation of citizenship to be cheerful; if the authorities find it necessary, the citizen may even be compelled to make a public display of his cheerfulness on important occasions, just as he may be conscripted into the army in time of war.”

All of which is to say, what we talk about when we talk about sport is laced with consequence. And we talk about sport more than we communally talk about anything else. Sport occupies more chatter time in the media and in daily life than politics, art, science, global affairs, the stock market, spirituality or education. It is rivalled only by our attention to the entertainment industries, and professional sport is one of the juggernauts of the entertainment industries.

Which is precisely the point of the fifth volume of the anthology series How Canadians Communicate. A periodic appraisal of the media, cultural practices and their significance for the national project, previous volumes in the series have dealt with globalization, popular culture, politics. This one has an account of the chuckwagon races at the Calgary Stampede that will have you on the edge of your buckboard.

Tracing their origin from prairie cattle drives of the late 1800s, when the chuckwagons—the cattle punchers’ mobile kitchens—would race one another to the nearest saloon at the end of the roundup, Aritha van Herk chronicles how a canny promoter named Guy Weadick, the man who founded the Calgary Stampede in 1912, installed the breakneck, chaotic chuckwagon contest as the main attraction of a days-long spectacle that was part rodeo, part vaudeville, part Wild West show. The essay is a superb illustration of the anthology’s central concern: how what begins as a type of competitive recreation (exuberant play that celebrates the end of the responsibilities of work) becomes professionalized, commodified and ultimately industrialized back into a form of work—albeit a labour whose product, for its spectators, is once again a type of recreation.

In 21 chapters, the various authors consider everything from the Olympic Games and national identity to the struggle for recognition of Paralympic athletic excellence; from doping scandals to the debates over the incidence and effects of concussions in contact sports, particularly hockey; the difference between U.S. and Canadian university sports to the CFL’s player import rules (a sort of temporary foreign workers program for the gridiron) and NFL fantasy leagues; from the theatrical marketing of choreographed professional wrestling to the theatrical marketing of the decidedly unchoreographed mixed martial art Ultimate Fighting Championship. In a fascinating pairing, two chapters examine reaction to the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian luger killed during a training run at Whistler on the opening day of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Regan Lauscher, a former Canadian Olympic luger who studied journalism in Calgary at Mount Royal University, provides the athlete’s perspective: a not-so-muted frustration with the news media, which she sees as ignorant of the sport and eager to affix blame. Jeremy Berry, a faculty member at Mount Royal who taught Lauscher, offers sympathy for the journalists, recounting the clamour of competing responses to the tragedy, through which reporters had to sort under deadline pressure.

Together, the constituent chapters illustrate a truth of our times: the massive expansion of sport as a feature of the contemporary moment. Within a single generation, sport has undergone a Big Bang, not only permeating public space to the point that it is all but impossible to ignore, but crowding out all sorts of other communal activity and topics of conversation. It is not just what we talk about when we talk about sport that matters; it is what we do not talk about when we talk about almost nothing else.

Back in the days when there were only three major U.S. television networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) and three English Canadian broadcasters (CBC, CTV, Global), sport was prominent in the media but still rationed to particular time slots, mostly on the weekends and confined in the main to specific sports: football, baseball, hockey, basketball. There were exceptions, of course. Growing up on the Prairies, I watched Stampede Wrestling on the local CTV affiliate (described in a charming, nostalgic chapter by Glenn Ruhl, whose father was a booker on the western Canadian wrestling circuit in the 1950s and ’60s) and the CBC commonly featured sports that were more niche in their appeal (if there had been such a thing as synchronized underwater equestrian curling, sponsored by the Royal Bank, the CBC would have aired it). The harbinger of things to come was ABC’s Wide World of Sports, which debuted in 1961, intended as a one-season summer fill-in. A kaleidoscope of then-obscure sports like Mexican cliff diving, demolition derby, jai-alai and lumberjack contests, the program was a dirt-cheap way for the third network to profitably fill air time. Today, it is not just the prominence of sport that is remarkable but its proliferation. Once marginal pastimes now enjoy mainstream popularity and corporate sponsorship. There are scores of sports—kitesurfing, parkour, wing suit flying, BASE jumping, slacklining, almost anything underwritten by Red Bull—that simply did not exist 25 years ago.

Television and sport are perfect for one another and always have been. First, television relies on the allure of narrative to assemble audiences, and sport is a real-time incarnation of the core fascination of any narrative: What is going to happen next? Second, sport makes for cheap, available televisual content. Whether it is a snooker table or a tennis court, point a camera at it and the result is ready-made programming.

As Jay Scherer points out in his chapter on CBC Sports, it costs $1.2 million or more to make an hour-long episode of Murdoch Mysteries. So, for the CBC to lose Hockey Night in Canada and the rights to broadcast the NHL is triply damaging to the network. First, it loses the advertising revenue that comes from hockey and on which it relies to make up the shortfall between its operating costs and its parliamentary grant. Second, it loses the window HNIC provides to advertise its non-hockey programming to an audience that might not otherwise be inclined to watch the public broadcaster. Finally, all those hours of hockey—some 400 per year—have to be replaced, but the CBC does not have the budget to create an additional 400 hours of original content. The loss of the NHL, Scherer argues, may well mean the death of the CBC, or at least its transformation from a full-service broadcaster to something akin to TVOntario.

The symbiosis of television and sport—the broadcasters feeding off sport for content and sport feeding off the networks for broadcasting revenue—is why the ascendance of sport in public life coincides with the advent of new technologies of media display. The arrival of cable and satellite broadcasting, and now internet streaming, meant the fragmentation of the media market and the multiplication of specialty channels, all ravenous for content. The first truly successful Canadian specialty channel was TSN (The Sports Network), created in 1984 and today the most profitable specialty channel in the country. Meanwhile, the flat screen TV made sport a fixture of every bar in the country, and the multiplication and globalization of sports themselves means that different screens can show different sports, catering to different tastes. It is perfectly possible to watch in the same bar at the same time soccer from Barcelona, poker from Las Vegas, cricket from Islamabad, NASCAR from Daytona and cliff diving from Hong Kong (now sponsored by Red Bull). In the late 20th century, ABC’s Wide World of Sports occupied 90 minutes of airtime on Saturday afternoon. In 2015, sport and broadcasting are so intertwined that Rogers Communications, owner of the Sportsnet specialty channel, owns the Toronto Blue Jays and the Rogers Centre where they play; Bell Canada Enterprises owns TSN; and together Rogers and BCE own 75 percent of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which in turn owns the Maple Leafs, the Toronto Raptors and the Air Canada Centre.

One might think that with all this media attention to sport we would be afforded a deeper understanding of sport itself, from what happens on the playing surface to what happens in the corporate boardrooms. Not so, says Roy MacGregor, the dean of Canadian sports journalists and the author, with Ken Dryden, of Home Game: Hockey and Life in Canada. In a chapter that amounts to a lament, MacGregor points out that when the media companies own the teams, corporate interest inevitably infiltrates the coverage; meanwhile, the splintering of public attention pushes sports journalism more and more toward snap judgements, tittle-tattle, bombast and trivia. The great thing about Twitter is that it provides a platform of shared experience and mutual public address, a place where fans are commentators who interact instantaneously with a constituency of other commentators. The downside is that no analysis can be longer than 140 characters. In the future we have made for ourselves, MacGregor suggests, everyone is Don Cherry.

Curiously, sport has become less participatory even as it has become more prominent. Or, at least, that is true of organized sport, with teams and leagues and coaches and referees. Sport in which the participants challenge themselves rather than others (rock climbing, say, or crossfit) is on the rise, and where sport shades into fitness it is clearly burgeoning. Every neighbourhood has a gym; Running Room has gone from one location in Edmonton in 1984 to 114 outlets across North America; wearable tech fitness trackers like Fitbit are now a $2 billion industry. But Simon Fraser University’s Richard Gruneau points out that fewer and fewer people, including and especially school-age kids, play organized sports.

Why should this be? In part, because hyper-competitiveness may have drained the fun out of the pool. The benefits of sport, at least for kids, were supposed to be physical fitness, mental acuity and the camaraderie of teamwork. The reality is too often ruined bodies, concussed minds and viciousness. But the crucial factor, Gruneau insists, is cost. Tally up the burden on a middle class family with three kids, all seriously committed to organized hockey: the equipment costs, the registration fees, the travel expenses. Too many families can no longer afford it or cannot see the benefit.

So how do Canadians communicate about sport? The short answer is through a screen, noses all but pressed up against the glass. Sport has become a thoroughly mediated experience, and not simply for the fans. More and more, the way we play and what we play takes the form of avatars on a screen manipulated by people hunched over a joystick. The absence of a chapter on e-sports is an oversight in a volume that otherwise casts a wide net, because e-sports are clearly the future. The Canadian gaming industry alone was worth $2.3 billion in 2013; the entire NHL, by comparison, is a $3.7 billion industry. And with the imminent arrival of the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality gaming system, and Morpheus, Sony’s competitor, the world of mediated sport is about to become infinitely more tantalizing—an unreal reality, avatars without a screen.

There are video games based on and licensed by the NHL, FIFA, Formula One. But the most popular e-games tend to be first-person shooters such as Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. Which leads one to wonder what the sport of tomorrow is going to look like. We already have paintball and laser tag. Imagine a 3-D holographic broadcast of military exercises or war games, complete with colour commentary and manoeuvre-by-manoeuvre analysis. And why stop there? Imagine 3-D holographic broadcasts of war itself.

“Wait a minute, folks. He’s been hit! He’s down! The runner has been shot. You saw it here, folks. Brilliant camera work. Simply great. John, how about that?”

“Simply tremendous, Bill … Ed, can we back the cameras up and show the folks that action again? Here it is in slow motion, folks. Now you see him … Private Ted Krogan from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Here he is coming around the last clump of bushes—now watch this, folks—he gets about half way across the clearing—and there it is, folks, you can actually see the bullet strike his throat—a direct hit. Watch this camera close-up of his face, you’ll see him die in front of your eyes.”

Science fiction writer Walter F. Moudy wrote that in “The Survivor” in 1965.

What is going to happen next?