You had to be there.
Let's discuss the best possible in-person experiences for a sports fan.
We might be in the best time of the sports calendar right now.
There are compelling arguments you can make for other parts of the year; early April sees the Final Four overlapping with the beginning of the baseball season. January offers playoff football and the meat of the basketball and hockey seasons, and June (usually) has the NBA and Stanley Cup Finals.
For me, though, September might be the best time of the year to be a sports fan. That’s because we overlap two of the best in-person sporting experiences at the same time. The weather’s started to cool down from the beastliest parts of the summer, and we can comfortably enjoy a few hours in a stadium, soaking in the joy of live sports and a little sunshine while we’re at it.
I’ll specify what I think those two best experiences are, but before I get to them, I’d like to run through my whole pantheon of Best In-Person Sports Experiences.
A completely random game that you have absolutely no personal stake in
This seems simple, and that’s because it is. Perhaps you’re on a business trip, or visiting out-of-town family, and you’ve got an evening to kill. There’s no pleasure quite as simple about visiting a venue you’ve never been in, seeing two teams you don’t give a rat’s ass about, playing a sport you may not even fully understand. I do not follow hockey closely, and yet I once attended an Anaheim Ducks-Toronto Maple Leafs game. I do not recall who won, I do not know if it was a good game, and it was an A+ sports attendance experience.
A game during the last season of an old, not-very-good venue that’s about to be replaced
Three years ago? You couldn’t stop bitching about what a dump this place was. But now there’s a newer, spiffier venue almost completed across the parking lot, the wrecking ball’s waiting outside, and you can’t help but reminisce about all the special times that we had here, all the historic moments, all the atmosphere and charm and magic of this place that was built in the 1970s after twenty minutes of design and oh yeah they forgot to put in bathrooms. It’s a wonderful indulgence.
Low-level minor league hockey games
I’ve already confessed to not being a hockey fan, and that remains true. I don’t have anything against the sport, I just grew up in a city without an NHL team, so it never got burned into my psyche the way other sports did. More to the point, I don’t understand what’s going on when I watch a game; I can tell when someone scores, obviously, but I can’t tell a good game from a bad game.
None of this applies with low-minor hockey, which is—at its best—a thin pretense for brawling. A community cockfight. A Kalamazoo Kumite.
Watching people compete in an endurance sport from the comfort of your front lawn
Okay, I can speak to this one from partial first-hand experience. I’ve run a few marathons—something I’m legally obligated to bring up at least once a year in print and literally any time I see an opening in conversation, I don’t make the rules—and in the smaller ones, the course has at some point or another wended its way through residential neighborhoods. Some people might grouse about the road closures, but others make a day of it; sitting on camp chairs on the front lawn, grilling burgers, even drinking from a keg or cooler of beer.
I cannot express to you how appealing this activity looks when you’re the one running twenty-six miles and not the one watching with a beer in hand.
Also, on two occasions these people have offered me a beer as I ran by, and on both occasions I unhesitatingly accepted. I am a serious recreational athlete.
Any sport, but especially an aristocratic one, while using a press credential for the first and preferably only time
Okay, just like the last one, this is a very slight humblebrag, but also a warning about getting jaded to experiences. Two years ago, I had the immense privilege of covering the Kentucky Derby for SBNation, which meant that I was given a plastic pass on a lanyard that allowed me to walk freely around Churchill Downs that week.
I imagine that if you are a professional sportswriter—something I have never exactly been—you eventually get jaded to this kind of privilege, and it just becomes another part of the job. There were plenty of Actual Media members there who never left the press area, a room in the bowels of the stadium that doesn’t even have a view of the track, watching everything on closed-circuit televisions. I get it; I get blasé about things after a while too.
But that first time? Oh man. I was giddily walking around horse stalls on the back of the track, thinking I can’t believe they let me in here. News organizations should sell this experience.
NOW, THE TOP FIVE.
5) An NFL game from your couch, a friend’s house, a sports bar, a sports book, or literally anywhere other than an actual NFL stadium
In spite of my better judgement and in spite of being a Cleveland Browns fan, I enjoy watching NFL games quite a bit. The players are among the world’s best athletes and they’re playing my favorite game, and the league has a great deal more parity than most other sports leagues bother with. It’s a lot of fun to spend a Sunday watching the games.
Unless you’re actually at them.
Attending an NFL game is one of the worst actual experiences in sports. The flow of gameplay is terrible, with endless breaks in action so people at home can watch Applebee’s ads. It costs roughly ten thousand dollars to attend, and every stadium is 30 miles from the nearest parking lot and/or mass transit. The stadiums are sterile, charmless mausoleums, the acoustics are terrible, and literally everyone else in attendance is borderline insane.
Watch it from your couch.
4) An NBA playoff game in a big city that hasn’t yet gotten jaded to success
I was coincidentally in Atlanta this spring, the same week that the Hawks were playing at home in their first-round playoff series against the New York Knicks. The energy walking around outside our hotel was off-the-charts. Everyone seemed so happy, so amped, so ready for the game. Even my young children recognized it.
“Daddy, what’s that smell?”
“You’ll recognize it in high school.”
3) A baseball playoff game in a cold-weather environment
Baseball during the regular season is a languid, leisurely game meant to fill time on a warm afternoon. Baseball during October, especially in a northern climate, feels like a radically different sport entirely. The ivy has gone brown, everyone’s wearing winter coats, and instead of spending half the game in the beer garden in right field, you’re spending four and a half hours standing and screaming at every pitch.
It’s like regular-season baseball’s Pokémon has evolved into a larger, angrier, more warlike form.
2) A mid-tier college football team hosting a higher-ranked and purportedly more prestigious opponent, especially if they do not play often
I would have given anything to be in Fayetteville this weekend as the Arkansas Razorbacks steamrolled the Texas Longhorns. These teams played every year from 1932 to 1990, and have played only five times since. Texas has won 70% of their meetings ever, and, despite their recent run of mediocrity, retain one of the most sought-after and valuable brands in the sport. And in their first visit to Fayetteville since the Bush administration, they got slapped in the mouth. I’m surprised the city didn’t burn to the ground.
1) A minor-league baseball game
I’ve gone on the record with this one before, but I simply cannot stress it enough. Attending a minor-league baseball game is the perfect in-person sports experience. They’re easy to get to, and to get around. They’re generally pretty cheap, and fan experience and family-friendliness is usually at the forefront.
More than any of that, though?
The result doesn’t matter.
For someone who spends a not-insignificant portion of my life watching sports, I often have trouble actually enjoying doing so. If it’s one of my teams involved, I’m probably on edge the whole time, either freaked out about their chances or grumpy about some aspect of their roster, gameplan or management. If it’s other teams in those leagues? I’m probably poisoned by something else, by which team I dislike more or by how the outcome will affect my team’s championship hopes.
At a minor-league game? None of that happens. The players are trying their best, and the competition is real, but the outcome is as meaningless to me at the outcomes of a game probably should be. It’s as close as I’ll come to living in the moment; eating soft-serve ice-cream out of a miniature plastic helmet, trying half-heartedly to explain the rules to my kids, and thinking “oh wow, it’s already the sixth inning?” because they have a pitch clock now.
To me? That’s perfection.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
Now, of course, I’d like to hear from you. What’s in your pantheon of in-person sports experiences?