Manchester United and England soccer player Ferdinand sits in the stands before a NBA preseason basketball game in Manchester

Preamble

I’m pretty much a one sport pony most of the time, though I have my other loves. Baseball chief among them. But I think the nature of football is such that, should you want to make it your one and only sport, you can basically do that. On any given weekend for example, you can watch football beginning at 6:30 AM right through to 11:00 PM (at least when MLS is back on TV).

I don’t recommend doing this. For one, it will make you insufferable to be around on weekdays. For two, and this is the crux of today’s column, it will prevent you from watching other sports that might make your soccer-watching even more enjoyable. Here’s how…

1. Hockey

That’s ice hockey to you people over there on your island together. It seems hard to comprehend how watching a game of “bed spreads crashing into each other” as one British person possibly put it, could improve your understanding of the beautiful game. But hockey’s excitement (and rapidly shifting scorelines) underlines some key differences in football. For one, taking a lot of shots as much as possible is really important in hockey, much in the same way it is in football. So is the influence of luck in hockey (shot percentages and save percentages revert quickly to the mean), though hockey will make you appreciate the affect of a large, grass playing surface, and the importance of positioning and formation. Hockey might be a relatively high scoring game when held against football, but it also makes you appreciate the care that goes into build-up play (and why we get so frustrated when a play doesn’t come off right).

Moreover, the quality of some hockey journalism will make you appreciate the state of soccer writing these days, but that’s for another column (likely on another blog).

2. Basketball

Right now is an awesome time to get into basketball as a soccer person. For one, I think there are more fans of soccer playing the sport than in any other North American league, a claim I have zero evidence to support. For two, the sport is undergoing an interesting shift, from the old run and slam single player points machine style if the 1990s and early naughts, into something smarter, including the importance of taking loads of three pointers. Watching teams on the shot clock, particularly when the score is relatively close in the fourth quarter, is a fascinating example of quick decision making and finding space in a very crowded field, which is part of the incredible fun of possession-based sides working their way through a packed defence. Plus it’s sometimes nice to watch a sport where the game isn’t radically altered by scoring.

3. Gridiron

Imagine a sport made up entirely of set pieces, one after another, forever. Here I like the combination of planned plays, and the improvisation which follows an unexpected interception or tackle. It’s also interesting to watch a sport in which field roles are much more clearly laid out, and how ineffective defences break down. I think this sport is much better to understand when you watch a very good team play a very poor one. I usually don’t have an entire Sunday afternoon I can devote to a game that is mostly ads, but I try to make time, and so should you.

4. Baseball

I suppose I could add cricket under here too, but whatever. Baseball is important because it’s often used as an example of a sport that is the distinct and exact opposite of football. No flow, all discrete actions and measurable outcomes. I mean, yeah. But there’s an advantage I think in watching a more static example of decision making in athletes, particularly when it comes to the best and most compelling part of the sport: pitching and hitting. The dynamics are incredible…a pitcher is both facing himself (accuracy, tiredness) and the batter. Meanwhile the batter must make his own choices depending on the count. The pitch on 0-2 is going to be much different than the one on 3-0. I think football fans tend to miss out on these atomized encounters, except perhaps in the penalty shootout. But football in many ways is a series of similar encounters at a sped up pace, whether a winger against a full-back or a defensive mid against a central attacking player, etc. Baseball can help you appreciate them a little more.

5. Tennis

Watch enough tennis and you’ll have a much better appreciation for why football, unlike this sport, is influenced heavily by luck. Most of what tennis players do is under their own influence. Good players tend to win all the time.

6. Golf

I don’t know. They get to wear pants? Maybe it’s the incredible, overarching influence of a slight mis-calibration in a golfer’s swing, and how it can help you appreciate how damn difficult it can be just to weight a pass properly? Let’s go with that. And they get to wear pants.

7. Darts

Holy cow we’re stretching this now. Um, an insight into the insanity of English sports fans? Yes, let’s settle on that.