On The Field

Soccer, aesthetics, branding and the deep, strange significance of groundskeeping.
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Any soccer fan will tell you as much, although it's not quite easy to say why: Champions League games always look better than other televised soccer games. Something about the lights, the weeknight context, the grandiose anthem setting the mood, the whole “Chaaaaaaaampions” thing—even the Heineken ads, whose green bottles now signify the mainstream glitz of CL—gives the game a look and feel that has little to do with the soccer that gets played. It’s not just that the biggest clubs and players are on display, although that certainly helps. It's that it all somehow looks the way it should.

The Champions League is so uniquely watchable both because of that wrought-to-overwrought spectacle and the sense that all that pomp is earned by the quality of the games themselves. NBC, which recently spent $250 million for the right to televise British Premier League matches, took on with those games the challenge of improving upon the American relationship with European professional soccer. For NBC's investment to work out, the televised game, as a product, must be made to seem as if it's worth fans' time and money. The true heads will juggle schedules and watch; they already are. Everyone else will need a good reason, and NBC will have to provide it. 

The MLS has done an exemplary job of developing our relationship with the game simply by improving how the games look. Diehards are going to diehard, but the qualities of a well-produced and shot soccer game are undeniably more enticing to a potential soccer convert on a fly-by-night flip-through. The same goes for smart directing—cameras at soccer-appropriate heights, discriminating shots during breaks at fan sections, that sort of thing. There's some thoughtful, good looking video, photography, and design on MLSSoccer.com (which is ahead of some of its European counterparts). All this works the way Saul Bass movie titles or artful album covers once did—they both add and imply value by looking great and showing something about the work. Maybe it’s even too obvious.

But there is something else that sings in HD, and matters on the pitch itself, and which is both easily ignored and utterly essential. Look at the grass. The grass on the field is a symbol of the growth and a critical aspect of soccer’s credibility, its future, and its power in this country. It's obvious even though it's not, and it matters more than you might think.

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The actual grass is one place where technology hasn’t affected the kind of game-changing transformation that HD provides. Yes, mowers are more advanced and hybrid grasses add this or that ease—turf, I promise you, is another topic—but grass is still grass. Only so much can be done with it. 

For example,you can change the way it’s cut. Switching to mowing in the horizontal/vertical stripes you see on European fields is as important for the way the game looks as soccer specific stadiums. The old circle patterns we saw on early MLS fields (and in World Cup 1994) made the fields look like corporate parks more than arenas; yellow soccer lines alongside white football hashes were (and are) impossible for the eye to discern, not to mention high school-ish, corny,and embarrassing for a professional organization.

So, yes: there’s only so much you can do with grass, stripes, and patterns, but that bit is critical. In his book Picture Perfect: Mowing techniques for Lawns, Landscapes and Sports, Red Sox Director of Grounds and go-to grass cutting quote David Mellor writes, “Patterns set a mood. They can represent power and control, or add humor or whimsy.” They also serve a utilitarian purpose, Mellor argues, because mowing can cover up or distract the eye from unseemly patches (say, around home plate).

Like baseball and NASCAR—fine, and golf—but unlike every other American sport, the fields (or, fine, "pitches") aren’t all the same. They merely have to fall within FIFA’s dimensions, defined in the 2012 “Laws of the Game” along a rather lassez faire range: between 100-130 yards long and 50-100 yards wide. (Those ranges are much narrower for international matches.)

I was told at a game in England—or maybe it was one of Martin Tyler’s asides—that the stripes in the grass on all Prem fields are six yards wide. This was not a good thing for me, honestly. I became and remain obsessed—I can’t help but use the stripes to count the field dimensions, and always follow that notation with somewhat far-reaching conclusions about how the field’s size will affect the game’s outcome. Surely (or not) a smaller field of play will restrict a free flowing passing game and lead to more upsets as (perhaps) less skilled smaller clubs gain that advantage over (perhaps) more technical larger clubs full of international-quality players! Or, of course, not.

Grass has been used as a competitive advantage for decades, too, across sports, at places like Wrigley Field, where notoriously long infield grass helped to strategically slow down grounders. Rumor has it that Sir Alex Ferguson met with the Old Trafford groundskeeper before every Manchester United home game to ensure the grass was, at fractions of an inch, precisely the length that gave United the biggest advantage. This is probably not true, but it's easy enough to imagine it being true.

The technical details are only interesting in passing, but to be thorough, the stripes work like this: Mowers and rollers push the grass down. Blades of grass that are pushed down to bend away from you appear lighter in color because there’s more surface area for light to reflect off. Grass bent towards you, on the other hand, appears darker because of the tips of the grass, which create shadows and provide a smaller reflecting surface.  

When the sun is behind you, the stripes are more evident. That means they’re also affected by time of day, not to mention the angle of viewing, which of course is from behind the plate on baseball fields and at half field on soccer fields, although soccer fields often have the stripes cut both horizontally and vertically so you see a different set of stripes depending on your viewing angle.

Bonus: A shorter cut reduces the stripe’s visibility because the blades bend less and reflect less light. Second bonus: warm-season grasses in the U.S. bend less than those elsewhere. So there's all that.

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More interesting is the way in which fields impact the aesthetic experience of watching the game itself, which, for NBC and their millions, has to be the point. Horizontal/vertical stripes in the grass can give a referee a straight line on which to judge offsides, but it’s not the only thing that makes the game worth looking at.

In “Going Down,” his essay in Nick Hornby’s necessary anthology My Favourite Year, Ed Horton writes, “There is a paradox in football’s literature: the closer you get to the game itself, the less compelling your narrative becomes.”

So let’s keep zooming out. We're all critics and aesthetes; we remember the old Boston Garden’s hardwood as much as its noise, and that’s not only fair, it’s meaningful. And also because NBC must know the way soccer looks can be the deciding factor for an unfamiliar viewer between watching or continuing to flip through. And because, for all sports as spectacle, the game today has as much to do with the setting of the athletes as their performances. Or rather, the athletes’ performances and our non-stop commentary/understanding/criticism are informed as much by their settings as their actions.

It’s not dissimilar to the way the art critic looks at the exhibition hall’s lighting, and it points to larger questions on the way all art and sport and culture is delivered today. “I still have no idea whether football is a much simpler or much more complicated game than I believe it to be,” Nick Hornby once wrote, and watching it is never just watching. Grass, just. This is one way of seeing it.

“Sacred grass,” as David Foster Wallace called it in his famous Federer piece, as in the “sacred grass of Wimbledon.” The grass ishis hero’s streets of Jerusalem.

But why is the grass important? DFW was talking about the hallowed Wimbledon ground as much as the blades of grass themselves, but we know how careful a writer he was. And DFW did not say ground or stadium. He said grass. Maybe he felt something primal about the idea of Federer and other lesser humans endeavoring on living nature. Anyone who’s ever played for a while on artificial turf and then returned to flying around and slide tackling on grass will recognize that intoxicating, totally human glee.

In the same piece, DFW writes, “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty.” He refused to believe that the delivery and aesthetic comprehension of our sports would ever supersede the competitions themselves. He’s right in the sense that winning will always be paramount within the sport. But today, the success of the sport is the success of the investment in the sport. Winning and losing are only parts of the leveraged market value. Subscribe. Buy. Watch, please.

Soccer has a dream chance to make a first impression in this country’s sports market, where, maybe,the fact of its highly touted re-entrance is sufficient. NBC’s enormous television deal, the high-quality trans-Atlantic streaming situation, 24/7 feeds, and a whole system of content—it’s only the beginning, although it's not quiteclear what it will begin. The fields of soccer have developed enough to win the right to compete in the setting of its choice, in the arena of arenas; they will look the part. And, for this to work the way it must, everything must be just so.

Image via Willelmadrileno.


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