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Covering All the Angles: March Madness Live and Mobile Spectatorship

march madness live

At the peripheries of SCMS 2014, all screens led to basketball. SCMS took place March 19-23, a slice of time spanning the first three rounds of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual tournament. I’ve watched college basketball since I was a kid, and those early days of March Madness are always my favorite: pre-tournament narratives crumble in the face of expectedly unexpected results, and sports media are too caught up in reacting to this or that upset to fashion new favorites out of the ruins. I was consequently wary of this scheduling convergence, sure I’d miss out on basketball Madness in the rush of its media studies counterpart. As it happened, I shouldn’t have worried. We’re past the days of broadcast sports’ necessarily couch-bound consumption, and the tournament permeated the spaces of SCMS Seattle: I watched SportsCenter recaps in the Sheraton’s lobby, saw North Carolina top Providence at the bar where my panel met for drinks, and even caught other conference-goers following games on their smartphones during presentations.

This last mode of watching is most relevant to my purposes here, for it speaks to a recent trend: the proliferation of non-televisual ways to consume live sports. There has been work done on the relationship between sport and broadcast media, but the focus tends to be radio and television. Less analyzed are newly emergent ways of watching and listening, which restructure the relationships between body and spectacle, viewer and viewed. I don’t presume to give a thorough treatment of this topic in the space of a blog post, but I do hope to point towards some implications of consuming live games via mobile screens. And there are more and more ways to watch on-the-go:  many applications for a number of sports. I focus here on March Madness Live,[1] the dedicated streaming service for NCAA tournament basketball, both because I’m familiar with it and because it ties itself to television in a way many such applications don’t: it comes free with a cable subscription, and so reinforces economic investment in broadcasting even as it displaces the living room as primary scene of broadcast viewing.

For the 2014 tournament, the NCAA relaunched MML as a website/multiplatform app that enables users to stream every game of the tournament on the device of their choosing; it also provides detailed statistics and social media connectivity. While versions of MML have been around since 2011, this year’s marks a significant uptick in usage: it was streamed 69.7 million times during the 2014 tournament, a 42 percent increase from the previous year, and mobile platform streams grew even more strikingly (up 71 percent over 2013). The trend, then, is clearly towards watching on devices that can be carried with you, that allow sports consumption on the morning train, at the office, in the back row of an SCMS conference room – wherever you are when the game happens live. With this increasingly non-televisual tournament viewing in mind, I want to take a look at the way digital broadcast structures spectatorship. I know, however, that basketball isn’t exactly central to media studies, so I’ll first outline the format made familiar by television.

The most common shot in televised basketball coverage – one that tends to be used when the clock is rolling and the ball is in play – gives a view from the stands opposite the team benches.[2]

In this mode, emphasis falls on the axis stretching from basket to basket. The camera might pan from one end of the court to the other to capture a fast break, or, as happens just after the above image was taken, follow along with a player as he drives towards the goal. It is much less reactive to movement along the baseline, though its elevated positioning does lend the court some depth (enough to follow plays unfolding in a halfcourt setup). The view seems to be coming from the stands, so the bodies of those actually present at the event ground the at-home spectator’s experience of it; the living room couch becomes a stand-in for arena seating, as the camera positioning here routes broadcast viewing through the organizational structure of on-the-scene viewing. Thus, the images we see preserve the boundary between the court and the stands, the space of playing and the space of watching.

When the game itself pauses – a foul, a timeout, or commercial break – other views take over. There’s the just after the fact replay, giving a better, closer angle on some spectacular play:


Or the reaction shot, a cut to someone’s face after potentially game-changing events:

Shabazz Napier, after a bad pass that leads to a turnover.

These are regulated deviations from the standard camera angle, which work to illuminate the game’s narrative unfolding. They signal to the audience that a play is significant, that it’s worthy of greater attention. In the last image, for example, we get a medium shot of UConn star Shabazz Napier after a botched pass; the audience is invited to scan his face for emotion, to divine whether this is a momentary lapse or the start of a collapse that will cost UConn the game. (It was the former, incidentally, as UConn went on to win the tournament and Napier the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.)

What interests me – what I noticed happening as I watched this year’s tournament through March Madness Live – is the breakdown of sports broadcast’s established structures. Almost 7 minutes into UConn’s win over Florida, something strange happened:

During a free throw, we leave the stands and creep up to the court’s side, so that players and basket tower above. Note how the depth of the court collapses here, so that the shooter and UConn’s number 20 appear to be occupying the same space, compromising understanding of the scene. If there’s a body to anchor this view it doesn’t belong to someone in the stands, and the camera seems to be teasing the possibility of penetrating into court space, of participating in the game rather than just watching it. For the second free throw, we transition to this:

The baseline becomes the primary axis and the camera hovers somewhere over the court, realizing the boundary transgression hinted at in the previous shot. In watching the game, this felt viscerally wrong in a way that pulled me away from the unfolding action – it violated my understanding (naturalized through decades of TV viewing) of how basketball spectatorship works. This wasn’t my only moment of disorientation; the beginning jump ball was shot from a low angle, and there were many others I didn’t think to make note of. A thoroughly unscientific survey of other sports watchers suggests that the incorporation of unusual, disorienting views isn’t specific to basketball, but is rather becoming more common across money sports.

Consequently, I want to suggest that a new spatial logic might be developing out of mobile broadcast. Lynn Spigel describes the fantasy attending television as follows: “By turning one’s living room into a theater, it was possible (at least in the ideal sense) to make outside spaces part of a safe and predictable domestic experience (116).” Hence watching the game on the living room couch, through a camera angle that reproduces an idealized experience of on-the-scene viewing. With mobile screens, we see the beginnings of a different fantasy: spectatorship that swoops through impossible perspectives, offering not distanced contemplation but penetration into – even mastery over – the game itself.

 

Footnotes

  1. Though I don’t get into this here, I think there’s something to the foregrounding of “live” in mobile broadcasting. Liveness has been linked to television since Raymond Williams’ seminal work, and its persistence in sports discourse in an age of delayed series viewing seems important. []
  2. All screencaps are taken from the Final Four matchup between Florida and Connecticut. Though I watched the game on my laptop, via MML, the televisual format still obtains to a great extent. As will become clear, I see mobile platform broadcast not as something radically new but rather an evolution out of existing paradigms. []