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In this week of President Bush's inauguration, it's a pleasure to note that the US and Europe still have one thing in common: sports chatter. Many men on both sides of the ocean devote their lives to talking about sport. As Umberto Eco has noted, sport today consists of a "discussion of the sports press", which is "a discourse on a discourse about watching others' sport as a discourse".

Yet even this most basic of human activities is not the same on the east side of the Atlantic as the west. It's not simply that the exact topics differ: in the US the sums of money are larger, the felonies committed by athletes worse, and their habit of dying young unmatched by European sportsmen. But more than that, the very framing of the discourse is different. Whereas American sports pages read like the business press, European ones mimic the arts pages.

Through daily statistical analysis of the US media, performed recently in a Miami Starbucks, I have established that nobody talking about American sport goes a sentence without using a number. Usually the number is a statistic. A journalist attending an American sports game leaves clutching booklets full of stats, which have often been memorised by the participants themselves. "These guys are like seventh in the league in offensive rebound percentage," remarked Stan Van Gundy, the Miami Heat basketball coach, of his slain opponents the New York Knicks. Even soccer in the US revolves around arcane stats, such as the "double assist".

It is a positivist mindset: nothing can be true unless validated by facts. That is why some general managers in baseball no longer watch prospective players, preferring to study their "numbers". It is widely believed that a new way of reading the numbers brought the Boston Red Sox the World Series last year.

In European soccer, by contrast, the only statistic anyone cares about is goals. Admittedly there is a company that keeps stats on tackles, completed passes etcetera per player in the English premiership, but interest is so low, and the stats are so expensive, that they are rarely used. This is a shame, because they could make European sports chatter better informed. For example, when Manchester United sold Jaap Stam in 2001, British tabloids believed it was because Stam had infringed British football's code of omerta by writing a boring book about the club. In fact, a glance at Stam's "numbers" would have revealed that he was no longer making the tackles.

Most European football managers devise strategy in ignorance of numbers. Few know whether, on average, a goalkeeper should boot goal-kicks long or pass them to a defender, whether you should shoot 30-metre free-kicks at goal or pass them, or whether to take short corners. The statistics don't exist.

Equally rare are reliable financial numbers. Nobody knows what our athletes earn. A few years ago a British tabloid printed a supposedly secret document showing the salaries of Manchester United's players. In fact the document wasn't secret. It was made up. Last Tuesday the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant ran an article recounting Feyenoord's six signings during the winter break. None of the transfer fees was mentioned, because they weren't known. Yet in the US an athlete's salary is as public as the president's, and when he changes clubs the financial details are reported as if it were a takeover, which of course it is.

It all comes down to one fundamental difference: US journalists report from inside their sports, in the locker room with the naked athletes, while the Europeans are on the outside of theirs. This makes American sports pages not just better informed but more fun. Recently Sports Illustrated interviewed the basketball player Tracy McGrady in his house, and got him to speculate on how many bathrooms it contained. By contrast, David Beckham once went years without giving an interview.

When Manchester United toured the US in silence, outraged journalists nearly rioted. They were used to athletes practically writing their copy for them. When Shaquille O'Neal joined the Miami Heat, for instance, he gave an amusing press conference, clearly mostly scripted, in which he said a stream of things like: "Of course I am old, but this is another classic Shaquille O'Neal quote: I'm like toilet paper, toothpaste, and certain amenities, I'm proven to be good and useful." In the history of English football, no player has talked like this. Outside England, soccer players talk but rarely say anything.

This doesn't leave much for Europe's vast sports press to cover. The main reason British sports pages are currently devoted to the spat between two football managers, Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson, is that in English football only the managers speak in public. Many British match reports - devoid of statistics, players' comments, and often of the journalist's own insights - therefore consist chiefly of the managers' post-match press conferences.

The ideal would be to shun statistics and interviews. This newspaper's dance correspondent of the past 40 years doesn't bother interviewing dancers: why should he care what they say? Nor does ballet offer many "numbers". Instead he writes about the performance. To do that, though, you have to know what you are seeing.

simonkuper@ftnetwork.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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