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Broadcast Rites

Exploring why sports fans are so devoted to 24

"The following takes place between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m."

That's what you hear when the lights dim at Mellon Arena: an intro borrowed from the FOX drama 24, followed by a rock 'n' roll montage of the Pens' brightest stars. The first time I saw it, it hit me like Rob Scuderi.

And I am not alone. What is it about 24 and sports fans?

Everybody I've spoken to about the show is a sports fan too. It seems that people who closely follow the exploits of Sid Crosby, Derek Jeter and Brian Urlacher find the exploits of Jack Bauer as interesting as the Super Bowl and March Madness.

ESPN's Bill Simmons regularly writes about 24 in his "Sports Guy" columns. Another ESPN staffer, Bomani Jones, wrote a column last spring chastising a friend for skipping a Cleveland Cavaliers playoff game to watch the season conclusion of 24. He couldn't believe this friend chose Jack Bauer over LeBron James (although he has admitted to me that he might have done the same thing for The Wire).

Matt Bettinger is the game producer for the Penguins. He and his crew are the masterminds behind the 24 intro. "Other teams have done 24 stuff, too," he says. "We kind of try to grab some pop culture, and you can't ignore the frenzy that surrounds 24. Besides, Keifer Sutherland [who plays 24 hero Jack Bauer] is a big hockey guy.

"We're going to change to a different intro shortly," Bettinger adds. "But if they start losing, we may go back to it. We're as superstitious as the players and fans."

In many ways, 24 is ridiculous: Characters race between the far ends of Los Angeles in five minutes flat, often get cell-phone service in subway tunnels (I can't even get it in my kitchen), and have Blackberries that can download iTunes and the National Security Agency's security matrix simultaneously. But we suspend our disbelief, just like we do when we watch sports. Performance-enhancing drugs? Nah. Student-athletes? Sure.

Maybe the show's appeal has something to do with its ability to complete a full narrative arc every season, remaining tense throughout -- just like the season of any successful sports team. We need look no further than the 2005-2006 Steelers to see this most dramatically: from the opening kickoff to the wild and crazy ride through the playoffs and the tearful, shlocky ending for Jerome Bettis, the long-suffering hero who rides off into the studio -- a champ at last. Can a film adaptation be far off?

"I could go on and on about common themes of machismo and the struggle for dominance, or how Jack's always playing defense, or how the constantly ticking clock in both 24 and sports imparts a sense of both urgency and high stakes," says Jeff Alexander, the 24 recapper for Television Without Pity, the Web site of record for all things TV-related.

And as with most sports, not only is the clock ticking, but the opposition is always adjusting to each heroic act of the Counter-Terrorism Unit. There is a seemingly endless supply of terror plots, twists, red herrings and bombs -- just as there are a million contingency plans and adjustments in place in any well-coached, well-played game. Facing the terrorists in 24, in other words, is a lot like trying to dissect a Bill Belichik-coached defense.

Of course, in 24, no matter what sort of adversity Jack Bauer has to struggle through, -- and like a sports team, he always has to endure adversity before season's end -- he'll eventually win out. The terrorists will be foiled at the last minute, their plans ruined just moments before their culmination. It doesn't always work out that way against the Patriots, as Steelers fans know only too well.

In some ways, maybe 24 is better than sports.

"If sports wanted to be more like 24, they'd have to make some changes," says Alexander. "For instance, the lead player on the field would have to routinely ignore instructions from the head coach, and teams would be rewarded for breaking rules. In fact, officiating would have to be eliminated entirely. Also, the visiting team would have to operate from some hidden location, forcing the home team to come and find them before trouncing them."

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