Opinion piece: "Sport 0, Fireworks 1", by Professor David Rowe

Date: 20/08/2009

Occasionally, something happens in the brash world of 21st century sport that gives pause for thought. We've got used to the hoopla - dancers, drummers, rock bands, parachutists, dirigibles and so on - but a close game terminated because the fireworks couldn't wait?

Recently, a tied baseball game in Northern California between the Chico Outlaws and Calgary Vipers in the Golden Baseball League's North Division was stopped because it was getting too late for the post-game fireworks display.

City ordinances wouldn't allow post-11pm fireworks, and the team managers refused to restart the game after the rockets were fired because of injury concerns for players. So it was agreed to freeze the game and resume combat an hour before the next one between the teams. Essentially, Catherine Wheel and Roman Candle took precedence over slugger and mitt.

Of course, this is America - worse still, California - so it really couldn't happen here, could it? Except that Australian sport is no stranger to the lure of non-sporting frivolity before, after and even during the match.

Sydney Olympic Park, for example, encourages people to visit its Overflow venue two hours before the big game for pre-match entertainment. The State of Origin Game 1, 2009 in Melbourne, like many other events, used the customary pop band to blast the ear wax out of expectant spectators. Sometimes players get their own signature tunes and, of course, there are always the fireworks.

Australian sport is prone to copying many American trends - like franchises and silly names - and perhaps the first firecracker game interruption is not too far away.

Re-scheduling a sport contest in deference to postgame pyrotechnics directly questions the place of sport within "sportainment". Traditionally, sport is seen as primary, and additional attractions (or distractions) like fireworks used to add value for some spectators, especially younger children and other family members, who are not especially passionate or knowledgeable about the sport contest itself.

Turning sports events into multi-dimensional spectacles is part of the process of going beyond a conventionally male, sport-fixated fan base - which is both demographically limiting and numerically diminishing - to embrace a wider (including television) audience.

Dyed-in-the-wool sport fans usually dislike this showbiz element, but tolerate it if it brings economic benefits to the sport and enhances domestic harmony. Players, similarly, tend to accept it as part of the promotional sport order. But they become agitated when the entertainment "contaminates" the sport, and where there is any ambiguity about the primary place of the sport contest within the total event.

So, the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics can become the most watched "live" event in human history, and all involved understand that it is sport-related spectacle. However, stopping the marathon after 20 miles for a scheduled firework display would lead to uproar.

Dayan and Katz in their book Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History discuss three main big event "scripts": Contests, Conquests, and Coronations. Sport, unlike moon landings (Conquests) or the US President taking the oath of office (Coronations), is principally about the Contest. For this reason, to interrupt the action for an entertainment commitment seriously skews the nature of the event.

The word "commitment" is especially significant here - not only the legal requirement to observe city ordinances, but honouring promises to paying customers. These are overwhelmingly those who have come for the sport and want the contest resolved on the night, but what about some who might be there for the fireworks? Both might demand their money back and consult their lawyers.

Many other "stakeholders" are involved too, including players, coaches, TV companies, advertisers, sponsors, caterers, stadium owners, security personnel, traffic police - and the producers of fireworks.

When a scheduled sport event goes over time, the complaints usually come from television viewers denied "live" access to the climax of the contest, or from others inconvenienced by accommodating sport within the schedule without their consent. It is rather unconventional to defer the end of the proceedings until another day in order to facilitate the post-game entertainment.

If those responsible for managing the Chico Outlaws-Calgary Vipers game thought more clearly about the context, they might have asked why people were in attendance. Were most people there for a fireworks display with a baseball game as pre-show entertainment, or for a sport contest with some pretty lights and loud bangs in the night sky afterwards?

The answer seems clear - the match would be remembered long after the extinguishment of the last spark.

Even at staid Wimbledon this year, the best courts were allocated on the basis of the "box-office appeal" (code for looks) of women players.
All sport - including Australian - would do well to remember that, without the Contest and its uniquely uncertain outcomes and enthusiastic partisanship, the embellishing razzamatazz can only ever produce a damp squib.

Originally published on: ON LINE opinion

David Rowe is Professor of Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney and the author of Sport, Culture and the Media: The Unruly Trinity.



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