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."
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.