What Are the Best Sports to Watch Live?

Remember live sports? Remember places? Hopefully in the not-so-distant future we will again be able to go to packed stadiums and cheer on our favorite teams once Covid-19 becomes a distant memory. Until then, I'd like to reminisce on some of the sporting events I've attended and attempt to rank them in terms of how enjoyable they were.

Many people will argue that attending a sporting event live is unmatched; that the environment is far and away better than watching it on TV. To that I'll say...sometimes. There are definitely benefits to going to a live sporting event: the pregame festivities, hearing the roar of the crowd, and high-fiving complete strangers after your team scores, to name a few. But there are also downsides: parking really far away from the stadium, walking to the stadium, waiting in lines for...everything, sitting for several hours in cramped seats with either the hot sun beating down on you or frigid air turning your whole body numb (unless it's an indoor arena), and on top of all that everything is very expensive. For all those reasons I think going to see live sports is fun every now and then, but I don't see myself getting season tickets to anything anytime soon.

With these things in mind, I think it's good to put different sports into perspective so that you can efficiently allocate your time and money once the world opens back up. While this list is undoubtedly subject to my own experiences and biases, I'll attempt to rank sports not by their absolute entertainment value, but by how much more entertaining they are to watch live than on TV. Sure, you may really love watching football live, but if you get almost as much enjoyment watching it on TV, then is it really worth the hassle?

Just a disclaimer: I don't have Soccer on this list because I've never been to any professional soccer game (except maybe an Olympic match back in 1996 but I don't really remember it too much...although I do recall the atmosphere being pretty electric). I know that soccer games can be very fun for people who are into it, but I wouldn't know how to rank it on this list. Same thing goes for a lot of other sports that I'm sure people enjoy watching.

8. NFL Football

Even though the NFL is the most profitable sports league in the world, I'm putting it last on my list of sports that are worth seeing live. This is perhaps overly biased since I've only been to one NFL game in my life, and it was the last regular season game in 2012 featuring the NFC #1 seed Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Atlanta was certainly playing like a team with nothing left to play for, and ended up losing in a game that was not very exciting and featured very little energy from the crowd or players. There are, of course, many exciting NFL games, but I'd say the average one is probably not too far from the game I watched, unless you are in a city like Green Bay where everyone is very into it. I still like watching NFL games, but since they are pretty readily available on TV and very expensive to attend, I think your money and time might be better spent elsewhere.

7. Basketball

I've been to a few NBA games and a few NCAA games, and while I'm not the biggest basketball fan in the world, I did still enjoy the games I attended. Basketball arenas are smaller and more intimate than football stadiums, so you can get more crowd energy with fewer people, and you can be a little closer to the action for the same (or less) price compared to an NFL game. Basketball games also last about 2.5 hours, which is less than a football game. This can be either a good or bad thing, as you can see it as getting less sport for your money, or not having to sit and watch as long. In any case, NBA or college games can be a fun way to spend an evening with friends.

6. Golf

I'm fortunate enough to have attended a PGA tournament, and not just any tournament, it was The Masters. Even though it was just a practice round, it was still a good time and a good opportunity to see a lot of the famous players decently close. There is also a lot of scenic beauty to a golf course (especially The Masters) so even if you aren't a big golf fan it is still fun to attend a tournament live. That said, the main downside of seeing a tournament live is that you won't really be able to watch everyone, and either have to pick one person to follow or try to camp out on one hole as players come through. TV has the benefit of switching to all the important players or highlights in real time. Even so, PGA-level golf tournaments don't come around as often as, say, a basketball game, so if you have the opportunity to attend one you should probably take it.

5. Horse Racing

In my youth I had some family members who would get tickets every year to a horse racing event in Callaway Gardens, Georgia, and it was a pretty good time. Granted, I was pretty young (and thus couldn't consume adult beverages) so I think a major portion of attending a horse racing event was lost on me, but I recall the food being pretty good and it was fun to see a bunch of people cheering on horses that they were...invested in. My uncle also taught me to gamble, so that was fun. Granted, I didn't pay attention to odds or anything, I just picked the horse whose name I liked the best.

I would like to go to the Kentucky Derby someday, as there is quite a bit of pageantry and excitement surrounding it. I've also heard from reliable sources that the drinking scene is pretty out of control. While I may be a little too old for that at this point in my life, I still think it'd be fun to dress up, wear a silly hat, and drink heavily for several hours before spending a minute and a half yelling at a horse.

4. College (and Sometimes High School) Football

It's probably overly biased to put College Football so many steps above NFL, which is due to the fact that I grew up in Athens, GA and attended many University of Georgia football games in my youth. Not all college football games have the same atmosphere, but I'd say most Power-Five games have a lot of crowd involvement. There are also many fun rivalries in college football that generate great atmospheres even if neither team has anything to play for in the season. As a general rule, it seems that college football enthusiasm is more prevalent in smaller "college towns" as opposed to big cities, where there are more activities competing for people's time. And in towns further removed from either big cities or colleges, high school football games can be fun to attend on a Friday night. The level of play is usually quite a bit lower than College or NFL, but it's still an experience that is very uniquely American.

3. Baseball

Image Credit

Ah, baseball, the great American pastime. Baseball is synonymous with summer, and it brings up a lot of great childhood memories of going to games with a glove and hoping to catch a fly ball (I never could in little league but hey, miracles happen). While these days I'm not the biggest baseball fan for a variety of reasons, I do think that attending a baseball game live is significantly better than watching it on TV (which can be a rather boring affair). The crack of the bat and the clap of a fastball hitting a glove are some signature sounds that "just hit different" when you're there. It's also relatively inexpensive compared to other pro sports, so it's fun to spend a summer evening with a group of friends in the cheap seats eating overpriced hot dogs and such. Interestingly enough, MLB franchises are having to come to terms with the reality that a growing number of people don't care about baseball so much, but enjoy going to games as a social event. Thus, stadium design is changing to reflect that.

2. Tennis

While I'm biased by the fact that tennis is one of my favorite sports to both play and watch, I do have some empirical evidence that tennis is quite enjoyable to watch live. Of perhaps all the sports on this list, watching tennis live gives an almost completely different experience to watching on TV. While you may get some neck cramps from all the side-to-side action, live tennis gives you a much greater appreciation for just how good pro tennis players are. Like baseball, the sounds of tennis are significantly amplified live, and as a player I'm always amazed by just how crisp the ball sounds when it comes off the racquet on every shot. The speed of the ball is also greatly underexaggerated on TV, I don't know if that's because of frame rates or camera angles or what, but when you watch live you get an appreciation for just how fast a 130 mph serve really is (and how impressive it is when the other player gets it back).

And that's not just coming from a tennis nerd. I've been to the US Open twice now, and each time I went with people who had never watched a tennis match before and absolutely loved it. One of my friends, who is an all-around sports fan, said it was the best sporting event he'd ever been to. This is not just due to the gameplay, tennis tournaments are also significantly ritzier than your typical American sporting event...so if you want to feel like an aristocrat sipping expensive cocktails while discussing how your portfolio is doing, then a tennis tournament is the place for you. While tickets are expensive, it is a pretty decent value, especially if you go during the first week of a tournament when there are tons of matches to watch. You can, of course, go to the big stadiums and watch the big names play, but you can also go to a variety of more intimate stadiums and still see top-level pros playing in competitive matches with a lot of crowd involvement.

Picture of Dominic Thiem that I took back in 2016. He won the tournament in 2020

The downside of pro tennis (and golf for that matter) is that tournaments only come around once a year and are only in a handful of places in America, so going to a tournament like the US Open involves some travel if you don't live there. However, college tennis, while not attracting the same crowds that the pros do, can still be fun to watch in a more accessible way if you live near a college. Better yet, it's usually free!

1. Hockey

This one came as a surprise to me since I grew up in Georgia, a state that cares about hockey about as much as Kanye cares what other people think. The first time I went to a hockey game was when I moved to Arizona and one of my friends (who is from Buffalo originally) asked if I wanted to go to a college game. I initially scoffed at the idea since I cared very little about hockey, but I had nothing else to do on a Friday night so what the heck.

To my surprise, I really enjoyed it. Even though it was just a college game in a civic center that didn't have a ton of fans, it was still a pretty good atmosphere and the gameplay was pretty cool to watch. The biggest difference to me between watching hockey live and on TV was that the puck is significantly easier to see live. On TV it is more or less invisible, which is why I can't really watch a hockey game on TV and expect to enjoy myself. Like tennis and baseball, the sounds of hockey are also pretty cool live, between the thwack of a slapshot and the crash of a player getting checked into the wall (apparently I'm very into the sounds of sports, but I don't think I'm alone in that). The fights are also pretty fun.

For all those reasons, I give hockey the top spot of sports that are best to watch live. This is due partly because it's fun to go to a hockey game, and partly because I have very little desire to watch a hockey game on TV, so the marginal benefit of going to a game is amplified.

And so that's my list of all the sports that I think are best to see live. This is very subjective I know, so I'd be interested to see what sports you think are the best to watch live (in relation to how enjoyable they are to watch on TV).

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