by Jim Rocco
May 20, 2019
AND THE WINNER IS … to be determined after the video replay is scrutinized for several gut-wrenching minutes.
This has, unfortunately, become the new norm in professional sports.
The most recent and painful display of this occurred at the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby. After Maximum Security crossed the finish line nearly two lengths ahead of Country House, the celebration began. Jockey Luis Saez was euphoric, and Gary West, the horse’s owner, was noticeably emotional as he desperately tried to maintain his composure while being interviewed. It was a microcosm of sports at its best.
What took place after that is now well-documented: A foul was called on Maximum Security for a very subtle and initially unnoticed infraction. And for the first time in the near century-and-a-half history of the distinguished race, the winner was disqualified.
In a world where an abundance of easily accessible information yields fewer and fewer genuine surprises, sports have been the last bastion of shocking wonderment. Even the most jaded among us have to be awestruck by some of the emotional roller coasters we ride, live and in real time, during sporting events. Simply put, it is that intense emotion that is at the very core of what makes sporting events so insanely popular around the world.
Until modern technology, that is, completely changed the way we watch sports.
Few living sports fans would argue we should go back to barring any form of video review to make certain decisions during the course of play. That may be because everyone has a favorite team who, prior to the use of instant replay, got the short end of the stick in a critical game situation. But in a classic case of “be careful what you wish for,” frame-by-frame, high-definition review has, in many people’s minds, violated the spirit of the very rules that are in place to maintain order.
The end result is this: Nobody will ever again watch a sporting event with the same edge-of-your-seat excitement that they did before the advent of replay. If you think that’s overstating the fact, consider what fan reaction will be at the conclusion of the next big horse race. Instead of saying, “Wow, that was amazing!” perhaps we’ll all be more likely to say, “OK, now let’s see if there were any fouls.” Adrenaline is drained and cynicism sets in, as sports fans wait for what feels like the resolution of a court case rather than an athletic endeavor.
As for horse racing, it’s no secret that that sport has issues, and is significantly less popular now than it was decades ago. Another blow to its reputation is the last thing it needs. Yet it took more than 20 minutes to determine the winner of “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” In a single afternoon, horse racing joined the ranks of baseball, football and others whose brand has taken a hit due to over-officiating.
The real question is this: Even if the stewards at Churchill Downs got the call right after their lengthy review, what is the cost? The “Sport of Kings” can ill afford to alienate its dwindling fan base, not to mention the millions of casual fans who only tune in for the premier events.
No one would deny that sports governing bodies are facing an extremely challenging dilemma with regard to the use of video replay. What’s also undeniable, however, is that fans are understandably becoming less and less tolerant of the sports brands they can no longer count on for the rush to which they had previously become accustomed. The in-the-moment excitement that brought them to sports in the first place.
Until the sports powers-that-be move to find a solution to this modern-day problem, the reality going forward is that you will likely hear formerly frenetic play-by-play announcers saying in a monotone voice, things like: “And the winner appears to be …”
Jim Rocco, a former marketing executive at HBO Sports and Barclays Center, is a managing director at PRCG | Sports (prcgsports.com).
In May, 2019, PRCG | Sports Managing Director Jim Rocco took to the pages of Sports Business Journal for a provocative look at how video replay can detract from the immediacy and excitement of live sporting events.
To see the article on the SBJ site, click the link below (subscription required).