Sage Steele on watching sports in the digital era

How technology has influenced the way games are viewed and played

As technology advances and people’s attention spans shorten, even diehard sports fans are finding it hard to sit through an entire game. “I struggle to watch a full game—without channel surfing or checking social media—even in my favorite sports,” says ESPN SportsCenter co-host Sage Steele. Patiently waiting through two- and three-hour-plus feats of athleticism is contrary to what we’ve come to expect in modern day society. “Now, everything is just click away… instantaneous and as fast as possible,” says Steele.

This change in mindset is not only impacting how people watch sports but how sports are played. Earlier this year, the MLB announced new rules to speed up the pace of baseball, which has been called “a 19th century game.” And in an effort to avoid marathon matches like the semi-final between John Isner and Kevin Anderson this year, Wimbledon announced that a tie-break will be played when the score reaches 12-12 in the final set beginning in 2019.

Furthermore talked with Steele, who began her career in sports broadcasting in 1995, about how the digital era is impacting her own—and everyone’s— consumption.

Photo: courtesy of ESPN

Do you like how sports has evolved with technology?

I am pretty old fashioned, so I miss the feeling I used to get sitting down to watch a game when it didn’t matter how long it took. Without watching an NFL game every week with my dad, I don’t know if I would have chosen this career; that’s how I realized I wanted to be a sportscaster. They were such special times and you don’t get that anymore.

How have your own viewing habits changed since then?

I get easily distracted by social media, so instead of just watching a game with my feet up, eyes on the television, I am checking Twitter. While I appreciate that with what I do for a living (because sometimes social media really does give me a different context and perspective on a certain play) it has pulled my eyes away from games that I am “watching.” It’s information overload and it feels like fast food and part of that makes me sad.

How has technology impacted how games are played?

The new push is to make everything quicker and I think all of the leagues are in very difficult positions to try and please everybody, which is impossible. Baseball is one of the toughest ones as there’s not a more traditional group than the MLB where the motto often is “this is the way it has always been played.” The problem is that people want these games to be called correctly and there’s been controversy over delays with instant replay on calls. So you want it to be right but you also want it to hurry up? There were a lot of complaints this past NBA season as well that the replays were taking too long.

Should games be made shorter?

Do they want to instill the 10-Run Rule like they used to have in Little League and now say “OK, after 18 innings let’s call a game?” No, you let them play it out. After triple overtime do you just call a tie in the NBA? Of course not, let them finish. Give me a winner and give me a loser and don’t cut it short because it is going on too long.

You have three children aged between 12 to 16. Do you see this short attention span even more in Generation Z?

Yes. My kids rarely sit and watch a full regular game, though they’ll watch NBA or NFL playoff games. With my son, I constantly hear the dings that come off his cellphone from breaking news or game updates on the ESPN app. He doesn’t necessarily feel the need to sit down and watch because he’s getting simultaneous updates.

What about the role of fantasy sports?

Fantasy actually makes me more prepared for my job because I have to keep up with the statistics on every player on every team for all the leagues. I remember playing fantasy baseball in 1995 and having to get a hardcopy newspaper, going through the box scores and doing the math by hand. The impact is huge, it’s fun and is obviously a massive money-maker, but it has drawn our attention to every single game on at once, which is why a sports bar with 12 TVs is a must-have now.

What does the future look like?

We are not going back to the way things used to be. In many ways that is awesome, but in other ways I get nostalgic about it and it’s sad when everyone doesn’t come together for one huge game besides the Super Bowl or a World Series Game 7. So it has changed but at the end of the day, people are watching and the passion is there for all of these sports so I think everybody is winning—it’s just different. I am thankful for the technology but for me personally, I am going to try to maintain a balance because the experience of sitting on the couch watching that game with my family is awesome—and those memories are really important to me.