Sports On TV As Ambient Sound

by Thomas Brett

In our apartment we “watch” a fair amount of European soccer (that’s real football for you fans of American football).  I put the word “watch” in quotation marks because for me, the games are on as much for their sound as for their visual action.  Don’t get me wrong: watching the games unfold and seeing the physical ballet of the players expand and contract around the strange bouncing attractor that is the bouncing ball is thrilling–especially if you’ve played soccer/football yourself.

But the soundscapes of the games are just as important and have several layers to them.  First, you have the white noise drone of the rabid fans, which occasionally self-organizes itself into massive unison sing-song chants in favor of one team or another.  There are a lot of chants out there (you can find their lyrics online), and I have no idea how everyone knows the songs.  You also have the continuous play-by-play commentary that articulates the dynamics of the players’ movements.  The commentators’ voices have an urgency to them (and there’s always a guy with a thick Scottish accent which ups the ante) and help frame the action on the field.  If you doubt this, try watching a game with the sound off and you’ll hear what I mean (and maybe discover something I’m overlooking): without sound, the game is just as frenetic, but now seems rather pointless and without a specific urgency.

I also watch golf, a sport whose minimal soundscape deserves comment (and maybe defense!).  A fair criticism of anyone who would actually want to watch golf on TV is that so little seems to be happening, and more to the point: it all seems so boring.  But boring is both the appeal of watching/listening to televised golf and just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the deeper psychological dynamics that lie beneath the sport’s smooth surface.

Golf commentators have been justly ridiculed for their habit of whispering intently so as to not distract the golfers huddled over their putts or assessing their next long iron: Why do the commentators whisper when they’re far away from the action, sequestered in glass booths?  But then, the whispering and the general silence on the course (the nature sounds and smatterings of applause notwithstanding) draws the TV viewer/listener inwards–into the minds of the golfers themselves.  Especially if you’ve ever tried hitting a golf ball (let alone hitting it accurately in a repeatable way), the silence of televised golf prompts you to imagine the golfers’ silent thought processes, their visualizing the shot they’re about to make, their anxieties, their elation or frustration upon watching the trajectory of the shot they’ve just hit.  The commentators’ comments and the quiet on the course makes you think about thinking while swinging a club at a small ball while taking aim at a distant target.  No wonder there are so many books about the “inner game” of golf.

If soccer can be viewed/heard as a noisy, communal celebration of teams and energies in motion, then perhaps golf can be viewed/heard as a solo exercise of focus and stasis–quiet meditation in the guise of a game for those players (and viewers at home) who don’t even know they’re in a reflective mode.