Sensory Inter/Play

Not long ago I suggested that, in contrast with the striated space of the gridiron football field, the association football pitch constituted a smooth space free of most constraints on athlete movement. If this is the case, one can imagine the challenges created in trying to describe the game action — to code it — for someone in the absence of corroborating visual support: how to know where the moving bodies and, more importantly, the ball are at any given point in time?

Quite unexpectedly, I learned the answer to that question this summer at the International Association for Media and Communication Research conference in Paris while watching a presentation by Richard Haynes of the Stirling Media Research Institute titled "Seymour de Lotbiniere and the Formative Years of Modern Sports Commentary." Eighty years ago the British Broadcasting Corporation broadcast the first live soccer game by radio. Prior to the game, the BBC published a plan of the field divided into numbered squares in the Radio Times magazine, which made a great deal of sense as an affective solution since the new radio era was vectoring away from the print era. When Teddy Wakelam called the action on the radio that weekend, he would refer to athletes in various grid sectors as the play moved around the pitch — in the process coining the phrase "back to square one."

Courtesy of BBC/Radio Times

Radio coverage of sport still exists today, albeit to serve very different purposes. While radio once extended the geographical reach of the game in real-time well beyond the stadium walls, television has supplanted radio as the medium that best serves this capacity. Radio survives primarily for those applications in which one's visual acuity is absent or required for some other more important purpose, such as driving. Though I don't really want to enjoy my time driving a car, and I generally despise radio with its bland formulaic approach, frequent commercials, and occasional program content, I will flip on FAN 590 if I'm in the car to catch Toronto Raptors basketball telecasts with Paul Jones and Eric Smith. Jones, the play-by-play man, has a quirk in his delivery with how he attempts to assist the listener in creating a conceptual impression of direction during games: "The Raptors bring the ball up the floor, moving left to right on your radio."

Why is this significant? It has to do with the fixed coordinates required to establish such a conceptual impression.

With the 1927 BBC telecast, the fixed references for the grid system printed in the Radio Times were the east and west sidelines of the stadium and the compass in the bottom-left corner of the map. No matter where one was "sitting" in the mind's eye, one could always orient to the action by understanding traditional map directionality. But remember that today the radio vector exists after the advent of television. While there is no published grid to orient action conceptually, Jones resolves this by fixing the television camera as the benchmark point of reference; the centre court wide-view camera with its back and forth pan shots becomes the "natural" perspective from which to construct a conceptual impression in the mind's eye. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, the radio audience's identification with the athletes is really an identification with the camera.

Comments

5 responses to Sensory Inter/Play

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  1. David Allison says:

    Long before the invention of the television, fans were first able to enjoy sporting events without actually attending, through use of the telegraph. This required the fan to use their imagination and create the game in their own mind as they saw fit. They were simply given coordinates, such as who was on what base during a baseball game, and the rest was up to them. With the invention of the radio, fans lost some of this power to perceive the game through their own minds, as they now had commentary from a radio host telling them how to picture the event. In modern society, with the invention of the television, people have completely lost the ability to be imaginative and create the action of the game in their own mind. People are even losing the ability to think for themselves and create their own opinion about sporting events as they are now told how to think by a panel of “experts” during pre or post match commentary. As the camera view has become the universal angle for picturing a sporting event when broadcasted through the radio, there is no longer a need for sectioning the field into grid sectors. There has however become an even greater need for more detailed commentary as fans have become reliant on the television and generally lost the ability to depict the game themselves.

  2. Jessica Damiani says:

    In my opinion boundaries are an essential and necessary part of sport. In this article it states that boundaries in sport may restrict the movement of a team or an individual, however, one could argue that the purpose of boundaries are to create sporting skills and techniques of a particular game. Our society is created based on divisions; some divisions are obvious and others are more concealed. The boundaries that create a city, for example Toronto, consists of a geographical area within the created lines established by those in power. Even though this seems to be quite clear, our society also has many different divisions between people. There are divisions between races, social economic status, gender, age, occupation, etc. As a society we feel required to create boundaries in order to define who we are and how we fit into our social order. Therefore, as a result of human nature, it is only expected that we create boundaries in sport.

    When there are established rules in sport, society comes to a mutual understanding and we can access situations at the same level. Even though we are living in a time where many people watch sports on the television, the radio still wholes to be a powerful source for reporting sporting events. Many people do not have access to a tv when at work or well driving, but they still want to be a part of the game. Since sports pre-define the rules and provide detailed responses of the action, listeners are able to understand the action without the visual representation. Those who have a solid understanding of the sport will be able to appreciate and recognize actions differently then those who have little knowledge.

    As our society continues to advance, I believe that the radio will most definitely follow this trend. To make sports more eventful, the games may be adapted with new boundaries and rules to better meet the needs of the listeners. Also, auditory effects may be further developed to help stimulate the action in the game in order to seem more real while listening.

  3. Brittany Bell says:

    The Sensory Inter/ play blog questions the significance of particular radio broadcasting methods and suggests that in order to establish a conceptual impression of the game fixed coordinates are required. Although fixed coordinates are effective in creating an image in the minds of fans this technique may not be understood universally by all. The grid system developed may describe to individuals where the play takes place on the field however can any individual transform these words into a conceptual understanding? The main aspect that contributes to the development of a good conceptual impression is not due to coordinates or a grid system. It is due to having an understanding of the sport. Sure, the direction of movement may help someone who does not know the rules to basketball be able to picture where the player is on the court. But having an understanding of the game in combination with the coordinates is what is responsible for establishing a conceptual image in the minds of listeners.

  4. Alyssa Minor says:

    One aspect that can be brought up is how “codes” of this sort within sport might help those with visual impairment. Such people might have the opportunity to enjoy sports that otherwise they would have a minimal understanding of. Language can describe sport in a way that lets your mind formulate the visual, therefore you do not necessarily need vision in order to “see”. Many people with visual impairments would agree with that I’m sure. Therefore, how important are all the flashy features of sport today when considering the object of the game? Sport has become surrounded by sponsorship, economic ploys, and different types of power struggles. A visually impaired person, I would imagine, could really enjoy sport for what it used to be. They can go back to the basics and appreciate the strategies of the game because they are not distracted by the uniform or the mascots, the picture of the perfect athletic physique or the scantily clad cheerleaders, the advertisements and commercials. Perhaps all of us should try listening to a sport on the radio more often instead of on the television and get back to the basics of sport before it became a game of power, wealth and status.

    Another aspect of your comments is the medium itself through which we receive our information. You said that radio listeners feel they are identifying with the athletes, but really they are identifying with the camera. This shows how the importance of the actual medium through which media is distributed is overlooked and unappreciated by most. People take for granted the use of media technologies in their everyday lives. Most have access to a computer, a television or at least a radio. Viewers or listeners absorb the media being transmitted, but do they think about the actual technology that is allowing this to happen? Marshall McLuhen had a very good point when he said, “The medium is the message”. If people took an active interest in the medium as much as they do in the information that the medium is conveying, how much more advanced could our society become? New media technologies will be invented in years to come, but if they were more appreciated at present, perhaps the advent of these technologies would evolve sooner rather than later.

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    [...] He started playing soccer as a youngster. In sportsBabel's career Smith has commented on the BBC's innovation in 1927 of supplying a numbered grid system to aid listeners before the first live football [...]