I’ve an odd confession to make. During this era of no live sports, I find that I’m enjoying the various hockey and baseball reruns I’ve been watching more than I was enjoying the “real things” prior to the Big Lockdown. Even the tennis reruns, I am enjoying about as much.
What sort of strange bird am I, anyway, to enjoy reruns more than the live events themselves? Am I also the sort of dude who, in this era of no restaurant meals, spends his evenings reading menus online, and finds this more enjoyable than actually going out to dinner somewhere?
The answer to this last question is no, no, and a thousand times no. Most emphatically I am not the sort of dude who prefers vicarious existence to real-life experience. I just happen to find the baseball and hockey games of two or three decades ago, and even the tennis matches of five or six years ago, more entertaining than many of the recent games and matches I’ve seen.
Let’s start with the issue of vicariousness. Watching sports on TV is itself a form of vicarious experience, whether the games one watches are taking place in the moment or happened 20 years ago. Going out to a ballpark or hockey arena and seeing a game live may be a tad less vicarious and closer to “real life” than watching the game on TV, but at the end of the day, one is still a spectator rather than a participant. Not to mention that live sporting events of any kind, with or without a live audience, won’t be happening for a considerable length of time—perhaps not until a COVID vaccine has been developed. As much as Donald Trump and his ilk may prate about giving people back their sports, the reality is that resuming live sporting events will be one of the last things that happens in the reopening process. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, certainly no foe of organized sport, recently said as much, in a remark quoted by CBC.
Just the other day, I heard the Chief Health Officer of Japan quoted as saying he’s not at all sure it will be safe to hold the Olympics in Tokyo next year—during the summer of 2021. That’s 14 months from now. If this kind of attitude is all at representative of the larger world of sports as a whole, live sports fans are in for a long dry spell. For the foreseeable future, we’ll be left with the choice of retro games and matches on TV, or no sports at all.
To my great surprise, this really isn’t bothering me very much. In fact, I’m liking my TV sports better than I’ve liked them in years. I’m finding that the experience of watching retro games and matches on TV differs, not just in degree but in kind, from the experience of watching live sports events as they are happening.
There are three main reasons for this. To begin with, the games or tennis matches we see as reruns have been specially selected, because they were particularly interesting, and generally because they were close, with an outcome that was in doubt almost to the end. There has been real drama in almost every rerun I’ve seen so far.
That definitely isn’t the case with the games we see live, whether at the ballpark or hockey arena or on TV. What you get is what you get. The live Blue Jays game we tune into might be a 3-2 nail-biter that takes 13 innings to decide, or a 14-2 laugher that has most fans falling asleep or changing channels by the sixth inning. There’s obviously no way of knowing in advance which type of live game we will get when we turn on our TV.
In the rerun pool from which our games are drawn these days, there are no 14-2 laughers in baseball, no 8-1 laughers in hockey, no 6-1, 6-0, 6-0 demolition jobs by Roger Federer. No network would show such a game or match. Common sense would forbid it. The airing of such a game or match would result in a flood of angry phone calls, texts, and e-mails. It would be the sort of public relations disaster that the sports networks, already hurting from loss of their usual sports ad revenue, could ill afford.
Beyond that, the TV viewing experience itself is different in reruns than in live matches. Almost all live games and matches feature an enormous number of commercials. In hockey games, in particular, there are special breaks set aside as “TV breaks.” Live tennis matches, as well, have lengthy commercial breaks, generally after each odd-numbered game. While the reruns still have some commercials, there are many fewer of them than there would be during a live game or match. And there are none of those lengthy intermission breaks we normally see between periods of hockey games. We go directly from one period into the next, with at most a short commercial break in between.
In addition, some hockey and baseball reruns, though not all of them, have been shortened, so that one sees only the most exciting parts of the game. This makes for an even more focussed and exciting viewing experience. I quickly noticed that I was falling asleep far less frequently during reruns than I had been during the live matches I was viewing immediately prior to the lockdown.
“Isn’t it boring,” some might ask, “to watch a game when you know in advance what the outcome will be?” For me, this hasn’t been an issue. In the first place, I often don’t know the outcome, because I never saw the game before. (Many of the hockey reruns, in particular, go back to the 1980s, when I didn’t own a TV set). And even some of the games I have seen before took place far enough in the past that I’ve long since forgotten both the final score and all but the haziest details.
But even when I do remember the score, it doesn’t bother me. Watching a rerun, my focus is different than it would be were I watching a live game. In the latter case, my main focus would be on the outcome. While I would appreciate and perhaps even applaud great plays, I’d still be most interested in knowing who won or lost. This isn’t so in the case of reruns. With the final outcome not in doubt (and sometimes deducible through internal evidence—you know that if a Canadian team is playing an American team, the Canadian team will probably come out on top), you’re free to focus on the game itself, on the strategy, the technique, and the style. I find I appreciate the nuances of the game far more with reruns, whether those nuances take the form of the precision sniping of Joe Nieuwendyk, the defensive prowess of Kevin Pillar, or the indefatigable retrieving of Andy Murray. And I am actually learning things about all of these sports that I never knew before, because I never bothered to look for them in my concern with the won-lost column.
Finally, particularly for hockey and baseball—this is not so much true for tennis, where thus far the networks appear not to have broadcast a match taking place prior to 2014—there’s a documentary quality to the old games. For me, there’s something enjoyable, in and of itself, about being taken back to an earlier era, with its different styles of dress, different fan behaviour, and, above all, different style of play. I marvel at the players who played without helmets through the 1980s and into the 1990s, and I’m amazed (and slightly appalled) to see games, like a 1987 Cup final match between Edmonton and Philadelphia that I viewed the other night, in which none of the officials was helmeted.
A number of current NHL players and executives have alluded to that different style of play—often quite fondly. Says Montreal Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot, “It’s hilarious when you see Bobby Orr skating and some guy’s got his stick wrapped around his waist the whole trip from blue-line to blue-line. Sometimes I think, ‘That wouldn’t be too bad if I could just latch my stick on someone and slow him down.’”
Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving, who played junior back in the late 1980s, has expressed himself even more pithily on the same theme. “What the hell was a penalty back then? It’s unbelievable watching some of these games and just the manslaughter that took place every shift.”
While Chiarot and Treliving may have overstated the case a bit, it’s definitely true, based on the reruns I’ve seen, that players on a down-ice rush would often be forced to drag an opposing player along with them for at least part of that rush, with little expectation (or hope) that the officials would call a penalty. I have no way of knowing whether, as some claim, the hitting was harder back in the day, but there definitely appears have been more of it—and also more in the way of post-play rugby-type scrums, sometimes lasting several minutes and leading to further, game-delaying fisticuffs.
Beyond that, the reruns give us an opportunity to see things that would otherwise be lost to us forever—games involving the old Quebec Nordiques team, 1993 playoff games featuring the Winnipeg Jets’ Teemu Selanie, then a rookie, and games showing a young Jaromir Jagr working in tandem with Mario Lemieux to produce one of the sport’s most potent offenses. I find it especially enjoyable to see games from what Joshua Clipperton calls the “wide-open 1980s,” the decade when Wayne Gretzky was in his prime, backed up by a strong supporting cast, and when it wasn’t uncommon for teams between them to score five or six goals in a single period. Without the reruns, we’d never have had these insights into how the game has evolved over the past three or four decades. I, for one, am grateful for those insights.
What isn’t as yet clear to me is how big the networks’ stock of retro games is, particularly their stock of reasonably exciting ones, and how long it can be expected to last, assuming that, as is presently the case, each channel broadcasts an average of two retro games or matches per night. Will it be necessary for the sports networks to “ration” their retro games and matches, reducing their broadcasts to one per night or maybe even one every night? Alternatively, will it be necessary for the networks to start airing reruns of second-tier, perhaps even third-tier games, games of only average interest and dramatic appeal, just to have something different to fill in the time each night? Already there are signs that, as the saying goes, some of the reruns are starting to get awfully old. This is certainly the case for the 1992 and 1993 World Series games featuring the Blue Jays, games which I notice haven’t been shown at any time during the past three or four weeks. Might this soon be the case, as well, for reruns of the more recent 2015 and 2017 playoff games involving the Blue Jays and Ottawa Senators? And how far back can the networks realistically be expected to go in their search for what might be called “new oldies”? So far, I haven’t seen anything from before about 1985. Are the hockey and baseball games and, for that matter, tennis matches as well from the 1960s or 1970s of sufficiently good technical quality that they could be rebroadcast today?
The answers to these questions will depend largely on how much longer we will have to rely entirely on reruns for our collective sports fixes. If (as now seems a tad optimistic to hope) some kind of live sports is on air by the fall, the networks may not have to delve too far below their first-tier, super-exciting games and matches. If, on the other hand, it’s to be a year or more before live sports can be broadcast again, the networks may well be faced with some hard choices. Do they cut back on the number of reruns they broadcast, or do they start using games and matches of significantly less than top quality, just to fill in the time? And if there is a significant reduction in the number of broadcasts of “major” sports, how else will the sports networks fill their evening time slots? The longer live sports are off the air, the more serious this problem will become. Suffice it to say, I’m glad I’m not in the network executives’ shoes.
For now, whatever sorts of hard choices the sports networks may be facing with regard to reruns in the months or even years ahead, I can only say that what they’re doing is working for me. Whether I’ll be saying the same thing in six months in a year is another matter, but it works for me right now. Bring on those unhelmeted referees riding herd on the young Gretzky, Nieuwendyk, and Ron Hextall, those shots of the young Milos Raonic introducing the tennis world to his booming serve, those glimpses of Tim Raines and Jose Bautista in their prime. I can take quite a lot of that.
Copyright © Jon Peirce, 2020
 Except as noted, hockey players’ and executives’ comments about the style of play they have seen in reruns are drawn from Joshua Clipperton, “Hilarious How Much the Game’s Changed,” CBC Sports website, April 19, 2020.
 In “Hilarious How Much the Game’s Changed.”