Spectating at YouTube

By now, Zinedine Zidane’s shocking headbutt in the World Cup final has faded from memory, replaced by other sporting scandals. But at YouTube, the whole episode—Zidane’s sudden loss of control, the media frenzy, and the inevitable mash-ups —remains frozen in place. We moved on, but hundreds of headbutt clips settled into YouTube’s formidable databases alongside famous touchdowns, baseball blunders, and marching band moments. All await the curious spectator.

Since its May 2005 launch, YouTube has become the site for online videos. It serves up an estimated 100 million videos every day, or roughly 60 percent of the video content online. The average viewer stays on the site for 28 minutes and men are 20 percent more likely to visit than women, advanced-television.com reported. With that many men spending that much time on the site, it’s not surprising a bewildering number of clips relate to sports. (More than 590,000 clips are specifically placed in the website’s sports category including something called C-Walking.)

A search on the site for “Zidane headbutt” turns up nearly 800 videos. Taking into account misspellings (headbut) and variations (head butt) the number moves well over 1,000. France’s former team captain is hardly the only sportsman getting attention at YouTube. Nearly 7,500 videos have “Ronaldhino” in the title. The Brazilian soccer magician can’t quite compete with “girl,” which approaches the 150,000 mark. But he’s more than a match for Angelina Jolie. (612!)

With these numbers, YouTube has become a superb place for a spectator. You can explore the best that niche sports like badminton and table tennis have to offer. Pseudo sports like the French obstacle race parkour and the gymnastics showdown of freestyle soccer thrive on the site. But it’s not all razzle dazzle, the site offers edifying clips on everything from akido to the table-soccer game subbuteo. If a particular sport continues to mystify—cricket, for example—YouTube can help with highlights and lessons.

The most popular videos are often compilations. Stars get tributes from Mike Tyson to kickboxer Iron Mike Zambidis. Greatest of compilations tend to show the attractions of particular sports. Boxing has knockouts. Tennis tends towards power and grace. In racing clips, crashes dominate from the encyclopedic to the singular. Moto rally spectators appear to be drawn to the sport for its death-defying, near misses again and again.

Perusing basketball clips at length raises the question: Is basketball the perfect sporting storm? It has the brutality boxing fans enjoy and the mayhem racing fans seem to crave. Like tennis, basketball makes space for poetic feats in the form of the cross over. And the adrenaline fiends of Moto rally should try spectating in the Silverdome.

Physical contact of most any sort appears to merit a special tribute in rough sports like football but also in less violent pastimes such as fishing and figure skating. Trick shots are always popular whether plucked from badminton, pool, or soccer.

By now, a YouTube sporting style should be discernable. Many who upload these videos borrow liberally from the music video playbook with quick cuts and high-energy rock or rap. (Even the pole vault gets the MTV treatment.) Referencing cinema seems irresistible: witness the Matrix table tennis match. YouTubers frequently borrow Hollywood’s narrative techniques but they seem to work best when spicing up tranquil pursuits like bocce and backgammon. The spoof is a close second, and the gift to this genre that was Brokeback Mountain proved irresistible to sporting cineastes. A-Rod and Jeter the got the Brokeback treatment, as did the headbutt.

The site also proves itself a bit of a cross-cultural sporting buffet. You can sample Israelis’ love of matkot. Thais offer something that can only be called footminton. And in Japan, archery becomes just one more game show conceit.

The site will doubtless prove itself a bonanza to any intrepid anthropologist of the future. But for us, for now, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, it’s about connections. You and me. On YouTube. Together. Watching this.

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