ATLANTA -- If you needed a sense of how much our nation has thirsted for football, how truly famished it has been to watch the first football game that mattered - well, "mattered" - since the Super Bowl last February 2, last night's Georgia State-Abilene Christian game at the Georgia Dome provided it.
Well, not if you were there. If you were there, like I was, it was mostly like watching a bunch of guys play Yahtzee in an airplane hangar. The official box score listed more than 10,000 fans, but that has to be counting people who happened to be walking around outside and/or in flights passing by overhead. If actual attendance were half that number, I'd be surprised.
To watch a game with that few fans in a building that holds more than 71,000 people is spatially disorienting; every time you look up you're surprised to see three massive levels of empty seats, which gives you a strange sense of perpetual freefall, like you're at the bottom of a well. It renders much of what we value about watching a football game in person - the emotion, the physicality, of course the violence - faintly ridiculous. During the pregame warmups, Georgia State linebackers coach P.J. Volker was screaming and punching the helmets of several of his players to get them fired up, the totally normal football routine of aggro-testosterone inflammation required when you're trying to get dozens of hungry young men to bash themselves into other hungry young men for three hours. (For no money.) But in an empty, silent dome, watching these interactions is uncomfortably personal and awkward, like overhearing an intensely personal conversation that's none of your business. You feel so close to what's happening, but far away from everything else.
But, like almost all football games anymore, the game didn't exist for the people in attendance. We are at best a studio audience, and it's more accurate to consider us unwitting stagehands, or maybe the equivalent of a laugh track on a sitcom. Fans in the stands at football games, in this age of football basically propping up an otherwise staggered cable television industry, are there as ambiance, extras who actually pay the networks to serve as background. We exist to reassure the viewers at home that there are humans in there, somewhere, that this isn't taking place entirely on a soundstage. A game between two tiny schools just trying to get their footing in FBS, in a massive dome that swallows all sound, when you put it on television, is just like every other football game. It's perfect pre-packaged programming.
So while I was spending half the game hanging out with Abilene Christian's mascot -- there was so much room to roam that I'm fairly certain he got to spend legitimate quality time with everybody -- and watching every wisp of energy absorbed into the air conditioning within seconds (at one point, a woman two sections over told me "Bless you" when I sneezed), those watching at home were simply enthralled by a cool football game on their television. Every time I looked at Twitter, people were, only semi-sarcastically, reveling in the excitement of a college football game, the way you'd watch any game, like there were 100,000 people in there. I kept getting texts from people telling me how cool I was to be watching this game in person; what a great kickoff to the college football season! So much scoring! Those quarterbacks are tough!
By being there, seeing what was actually happening (a clumsy game between two bad teams in front of an indifferent few thousand fans in a Sarlacc pit), I was missing the experience the rest of the football world was having, watching it at home and simply grateful for the opportunity. The game was more exciting on television than it was in person. This is becoming inherent to the football experience: The closer you are, the more you're missing. That game looks so thrilling! friends kept texting me. I wanted to respond: Try actually being here. I can't better describe how far football has gone in catering to the fan at home at the expense of the fan at home than that.
All that said, It was still fun. (This is diversion, after all.) There is an undeniable charm in Georgia State football, an essentially brand-new enterprise trying to build an FBS program from scratch in the middle of Atlanta, playing in an absurdly large home stadium. (They'll be playing in that crazy-looking new Atlanta Falcon football stadium that's opening in 2017.)
They have a long way to go, but the ceiling on a program -- football and basketball; GSU made the NIT last year -- like this one is undeniable. There are programs with a lot less to offer recruits than living in downtown Atlanta and playing in an NFL stadium. Even if the public address announcer is so loud that any noise the crowd might make is drowned away, and even if they crank the air conditioning at the Georgia Dome like there's 71,000 people there rather than 1/35th of that. (Several Abilene Christian fans were huddled under a blanket and drinking hot chocolate. In a dome.)
You gotta hand it to them: Georgia State does pull out all the stops. When I got to my seat -- lower-level; all other sections of the Georgia Dome appeared to be closed -- I was welcomed by a letter at my seat.
That's a personalized -- they must have gotten my name from the Ticketmaster credit card order, which was sort of creepy -- letter from Georgia State head coach Trent Miles, asking me to stick around and buy season tickets. Talk about your personal seat licenses. Hey, whatever works. I also loved the pregame hype video the team put together for the Georgia Dome video board, which made it look, like all great hype videos, like Georgia State was the most terrifying program any school could possibly face rather than a team that was 0-12 last season. (I wondered to my friend if the whole video would just be the field goal they kicked against Alabama, over and over and over.)
It was an enjoyable evening, all told; going to a sporting event is generally better than doing something other than going to sporting event. (Particularly because, unlike most college football games, they sell beer at Georgia State games, and with nobody there, the cell coverage is fantastic.) And Georgia State ended up breaking a nearly two-year losing streak on a field goal that was even ugly on television, which clinched a wild 38-37 win.
But it was still the increasingly common experience of getting less of a sense of what was going on a football game by actually being there. Georgia State can play in an antiseptic Georgia Dome in front of a piddly crowd, and if you're watching at home, you'll never notice, and even if you do, you won't care. You'll just kick back and watch the programming. And why wouldn't you? That's what I'll be doing all night tonight, and every Sunday (and most Saturdays; SEC football experiences being the obvious exceptions here) all season. It's a television game. If you're there in person, that's great … but really, you're sort of beside the point. Sorry, Coach Miles: Touched by the letter, but I'll just hope to catch you on ESPN3 sometime later on.
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