Some sociologists went to the U.S. Open final and posted about it on Facebook. What they saw is embedded above. Notice the size of the court.
I saw the match too. When I got home from work, I turned on CBS. Here’s what I saw.
On my 40" flat-screen Samsung, I could see the match as though I were in the box seats, nothing between me and the court. I could see the grimace on a player’s face, the sweat stains on his shirt. I sat on an upholstered chair. And it cost me nothing.
How much was a plastic seat in the top rows of Arthur Ashe Stadium? I don’t know. My grounds pass on Day 3 was $66. Seats for the finals were $95. I have sat up there near the top. The players are colorful miniatures moving around on the green rectangles. The distant perspective allows—forces—you to see the whole court, so you are aware of placement strategies and patterns of movement you might otherwise not have noticed. But tennis isn’t football; strategy, especially in singles, is fairly obvious and not complicated.
The Final is not just any match. It is the ritual that anoints our king, hence the trophies and pageantry and ritualistic incantations (speeches).
From way up there, the players are so far away. It’s as though you were looking at your TV through the wrong end of a telescope. You see the game differently, and you hear it differently. A player hits a solid backcourt shot, and for a noticeable half-second or so, you hear silence. Only when the ball is clearing the net do you hear the impact of the stroke.
Why go out to Flushing Meadows? It’s ridiculous to think about this in the narrow economic framework of money and tennis narrowly defined. My $0 view of the match was far better than that of my Facebook friends in their expensive seats high above the court. Close that micro-economics book and open Durkheim. Think about the match as ritual. It’s not just about Nadal and Djokovic whacking a fuzzy yellow ball back and forth for a couple of hours. A ritual includes everyone. If you’re there, you are part of that group. You are one with the people in the stadium and with the charismatic figures in center court.
That’s why, if something is a ritual, being there is so important. Showing up is more than just 80 percent. It’s everything. If you’re there, you are part of our group. You go to Thanksgiving dinner at Aunt Diane’s house not because the food is good. You might get better food and more enjoyment at home with take-out Chinese and a TV. You go because your presence defines you as a member of the group. Not going is tantamount to saying that you are just not part of this family.
The Final is not just any match. It is the ritual that anoints our king, hence the trophies and pageantry and ritualistic incantations (speeches) after the match. I would guess that most of the people there would choose even a so-so final over a close, well-played match on an outside court in Round 3. Because this match is so important, it generates more mana. And that energy is created by the crowd. Of course, the crowd’s perception is that it is the players who are creating that special feeling, and it helps if the match on the court is close and well-played. But the same match—every shot exactly the same—played in an early round in a nearly empty stadium would not create that same feeling for the handful of spectators who showed up.
What makes the ticket worth all the money then is not the quality of the play. It is the symbolic meaning of the ritual and the strong feeling you get from being part of that ritual. You were there, with Nadal and Djokovic. That ritual exists in sacred time, linked to other great finals matches. So maybe you save your ticket stub or your program as your link to that sacred past.
I saw the same match, and I had a better view. But I’m not going to save my cable TV bill.