The Last Word: The peril of today’s ‘sportainment’ business

Fans can hope for a great game but they have no right to expect it.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
The stage was set, the arena packed to capacity and the main characters ready to play their parts to perfection.
But rather than putting on a show to remember, the performers fluffed their way through a 90-minute borefest which left those who paid top dollar for highly sought after tickets scratching their heads in confusion.
Was it not the obligation of the individuals behind the scenes to ensure that the spectators got their money’s worth?
Monday night’s Premier League encounter between Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv had been hyped to perfection by the media as the “game of the season” – a clash between the two clubs who represented Israel in Europe with pride.
The Reds vs Greens battle featured what was perceived to be the best of the best of the local fare, the teams which had scored by far the most goals so far this campaign – Maccabi with 43 and Hapoel with 44 – led by the league’s top goal-scorers in Haifa’s Shlomi Arbeitman and Tel Aviv’s Itai Shechter.
So a 0-0 draw with few real chances was hardly what was expected.
But, alas, it was what we got.
Haifa led the league standings by 10 points going to a game which many analysts were saying Tel Aviv simply had to win if it was to have any chance of challenging for the title.
However, after only a few minutes, the match turned into a tight tactical fight which forced the strikers to try their luck from distance as their opponents had so many men behind the ball. Genuine scoring chances were few and far between.
Maccabi coach Elisha Levy and his Hapoel counterpart Eli Gutman appeared to have been so concerned about losing that they didn’t want to take any real risks in order to win.
To some, this made tactical sense. If either team had thrown caution to the wind and gone all out on the attack they would have left themselves open at the back, giving their opponent a far greater chance to take all three points.
“Of course we want to win, but its not a bad result,” Levy told reporters after the game in his characteristic, matter of fact style.
However, was it fair to the tens of thousands who tuned in to watch the game on television, let alone the thousands of supporters who spent their evening in near-freezing conditions at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium?
The sad fact is that over the years sports has become a become a multimillion dollar business, no more so than in the United States where basketball, football and baseball players (and even in hockey, NASCAR, and the list goes on and on) are paid incredible amounts of money in contracts and endorsement deals.
In return for the outlandish salaries, the individuals are expected to work hard to attract the attention of the viewing public, thereby selling out stadiums and promoting products.
In America, although perhaps less so in other countries around the world, sports is about entertainment – getting as many people to watch as possible. The last thing the teams’ upper management and sponsors want is a totally uninteresting event which leaves viewers yawning and reaching to switch channels.
Following Monday night’s nil-nil snoozer, the Israeli media coverage was chock-full of angry backlash from those who felt let down.
Some compared the game to the previous day’s Milan derby, in which Inter put on a superbly entertaining display and defeated arch rival AC Milan 2-0.
But was this a fair comparison, and do the coaching and playing staffs on any club have any over-arching responsibility to entertain?
Despite the stacks of cash flooding into sports, a soccer match is not a circus. Fans can hope for a great game but they have no right to expect it.
The job of those directing the play is, first and foremost, to produce a winning team. If that includes some less than exciting games, so be it. Levy is the epitome of a coach who has formed a side which hardly gives up any goals while, in general, scoring at will. This is also true of Gutman, whose team smashed seven goals past a woeful Hapoel Petah Tikva in November and famously scored five against Rapid Vienna in the Europa League a couple of weeks earlier.
Nevertheless, if Gutman and Levy both decided to encourage their teams to play conservatively, that is their prerogative.
Sports is about the pursuit of success, not ratings. If that success is to be achieved, it is likely – or at least hopeful, from a fan’s perspective – that most teams will need to play in an exciting manner. But excitement should not be seen as a requirement, for it is that expectation which could kill the spirit of the games themselves.