Some Mouthy bloke recently posted the following on a popular sportblog comment thread: “If they get the ticketing right (and they probably won't) I expect the London crowds to be very non-jingoistic….It would be awful if the Games’ crowds were versions of Wimbledon's and not versions of a London primary school's parents' evening.”
It was the Wimbledon part that struck me. Similar sentiments had been expressed during The Championships; for while some revelled in the screaming support for Andy Murray, most expressed dismay that this wasn’t what Wimbledon was about, and that the antics of “the Surrey Set” made a nation cringe. But why, I wondered, is deafeningly enthusiastic fan fervour at a football match the least you would expect, but the same on Centre Court is faintly embarrassing? What accounts for the differences in appropriate fan reaction at football and tennis, or, for that matter, any (top level – and I emphasise that I’m considering only the top level of the sports I mention) popular modern sport? In short, why do we shout more at some types of sporting event than others?
Let’s start with the contention that the character of the Wimbledon Centre Court crowd is a function of the class of its constituent members.
"They don't sit on their hands, they actually use them to clap." So said Martina Navratilova about the famous Sunday Centre Court crowd of 1991. We (yes, I was among them), the ordinary folk, had been let in for a tenner, and we were a little rowdier than the regular patrons of the place. This, it is supposed, led to the increasingly vocal, almost football crowd-like behaviour of today’s Wimbledon ticket buyers.
But is that really what’s happening? Nationality is the key here. The crowd only truly goes crazy for Murray, as it did for Henman before him, and I suspect Roger Taylor used to get something similar. If there’s no Brit on court (although a particular crowd favourite, like Agassi, can stir almost as strong a response) even in these modern times, the crowd reverts to the norm – silent before points, applause after. And, more or less, that’s how we behaved on that Sunday long ago. A little louder, to be sure (especially for Connors), but still respectful of the etiquette of the tennis crowd – which is not based on class, but on the fact that the game of tennis requires such etiquette. That’s what you do as a spectator of a sport whose participants take turns.
The crowd at a game of snooker is about as far removed, class-wise, as you can get from that watching a Centre Court match, and yet their behaviour is remarkably similar; generally speaking; silence before a shot, applause after a successful one. Rowdier cheering is reserved for crowd favourites (and of course, at crucial junctures of a match, which is common behaviour throughout the quieter sports).
National bias, which inspires much of the loudest crowd noise in tennis, is, of course, less apparent in snooker because of the paucity of foreigner players. However, both national bias and player favouritism are merely modifiers – they increase the noise levels when they are present, but aren’t the dominant factors regarding crowd etiquette. And as for the type of people who watch – well, why we’re sometimes quiet at sporting events has little to do with class, and much to do with the type of sport we’re watching. In snooker, the players take turns, and we who watch are quiet. In tennis, we are quiet, too – but slightly less so, because the turns are taken more quickly.
Well, you might say, a tennis serve is a shot, like a snooker or a golf shot, that requires concentration, and so quiet is necessary to allow the player to focus. But does a penalty-taking footballer, or a player taking a free throw in basketball, not need to concentrate on his big moment? He doesn’t get to, though, especially not in an away game.
I think what you have here is the modus operandi of a crowd, whose sport usually demands noise, overwhelming what are essentially individual sporting moments. For we are not quiet based on the difficulty of the game. The penalty takers and free throw shooters, whose shots aren’t significantly (if at all) less difficult than those of golfers and snooker players, suffer simply from being participators in two of the noisy sports.
There are, in terms of crowd noise, essentially three kinds of sport. There are the shouting, singing, constant noise (unless the home side aren't doing so well) sports - football, rugby chief among them. Stateside (which, as I'm here, I sort of follow, but sort of don't really understand), the major equivalents are the other football and basketball, which maintain the noise levels, and lack only the singing.
Then you have the constant chatter sports; cricket (with chants - if not outright singing - emerging in recent years. I speak here of English cricket grounds, as that is my where my personal experience lies) and baseball. The latter, I feel, is a little more raucous. For example, fans will boo certain players they don't like, or even throw objects onto the field of play - this all seems to me to be closer to the shouty sports than the chatty ones. Further, baseball being more stylised than cricket, there are certain, set moments - for example, when the home side is potentially one pitch away from wrapping up the game - that lend themselves to jeering and cheering more than any in cricket (although the cheering and clapping of a player as he is on the threshold of a 100 in cricket is a parallel). On the whole, though, baseball approximates cricket in the way that the spectators treat it as much as a social, chatting-and-drinking-with-your-friends day out.
Then there are the silent ones, the reverential sports – among them tennis, golf and snooker.
There is, it seems to me, a clear correlation between the nature of the games in question, and the reactions they elicit from their spectators. It’s all about how each sport combines team play, possession of the ball (because we are mostly talking about ball sports), and player interaction.
In the shouty sports, when the ball is in play, the teams are at each other all the time – from passes, shots, tackles and saves, to off-the-ball pushing and shoving, it’s constant interaction.
In the chatty sports (cricket and baseball), there is only one team on the field, and they all interact with just one or two of the opposition, in very short bursts – balls/overs and pitches/innings. The passion of the crowd’s reaction varies, dependent almost entirely on the importance of the result of the burst of action; in cricket, applause for a good shot (which is of limited importance for most of the length of the match), but cheering for a wicket (which is generally more important). In baseball, some cheering for an out (of which there are plenty - usually 51 to 54 in a game – so their value is relatively small), but more for a hit (of which there are almost always far fewer), and even more for a home run (rare, relative to a regular hit).
In quiet sports such as tennis and snooker, it’s one-on-one – the protagonists take turns. The audience applauds, and sometimes cheers, a good shot, but generally tries not to do so to the disadvantage of the player on the receiving end. The applause and cheering are generally rowdier and more interruptive in tennis than snooker – this is mainly because in snooker, one player takes (or, at least, can take) several shots in a row, whereas in tennis, the shots are alternating. This means, in snooker, less of an opportunity to interrupt the other player, while tennis provides a shorter time between shots to applaud a good one (resulting in a greater likelihood of noise during the opposing player’s shot), and, more importantly, more immediate excitement, as players try to outmanoeuvre/overpower each other in a short space of time (the duration of each point).
Golf, on the other hand, is the player alone. We wait; he (or she) hits the ball; finally, we applaud, or cringe, or not much of either. These reactions are based on the golfer’s skill alone - other than in end-of-tournament pressure situations, where the scope for din and excitement is greater. An appreciation of skill alone doesn’t evoke much passion – hence golf spectators are amongst the quietest, on the whole. Only in matchplay do we find a person against person format, and it is no surprise that the time when a golf-watching crowd becomes the rowdiest, the most football crowd-like, is during the Ryder Cup, when matchplay format meets team play and national/regional pride.
One last thing. Boxing, and it’s instructive. One of the world’s oldest sports, it’s perhaps the ultimate test of an athletic individual (yes, there’s room for argument there, as there is with everything about boxing, but it is a test, you’ll grant me that). It could never be a team sport - a dozen people in the ring at one time? Where would you look? – And therefore doesn’t have the natural advantages, in terms of crowd noise, that football enjoys.
Yet, at the highest level, it can inspire passion, shouting, chanting and singing – more, maybe, than any other sport of the individual, because it’s the most interactive of all sports; it’s me or him, and either way, it’s going to hurt. In rugby you tackle, and even occasionally punch, but in boxing it is (homoeroticism alert!) the continuous mutual pursuit of two men. When there are lulls in the crowd, it’s because the fighters aren’t hitting each other; when there’s passion among the spectators, it’s because the fighters are hitting each other a lot.
But imagine. Imagine if boxing wasn’t three essentially pauseless minutes of scrapping, followed by three more, and three more, and so on. Imagine if you tossed a coin, and the winner got to punch first. Just once. Then it’s the other guy’s turn, and they keep on like that until someone falls down and can’t get up. We wouldn’t be yelling and cheering in a wall of noise. We’d wait and watch, and then our reaction would be a cheer, or a grimace, or not much, depending on the punch. Then we wait and watch again. And react. Watch and react. And it wouldn’t be boxing any more. It would be tennis. With punching.