Live Sports' Giant Leap

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For sports fans, there's nothing more visually breathtaking than watching a sweaty running back scamper down a richly-colored green field for a touchdown on a 60-inch high-definition projection television.

ESPN, Fox Sports Net and Home Box Office are among the many cable networks that each year are delivering more images like that from thousands of live sporting events, much to delight of fans, MSOs and satellite companies.

But sports programmers are still years away from delivering every televised event in pristine, widescreen HD pictures and Dolby 5:1 sound.

As the HD marketplace continues to mature, network executives say they are still forced to strategically choose when and where to deploy limited HD trucks to cover live sporting events in an effort to deliver as many high-profile and diverse HD events as financially feasible.

But that's not to say there isn't a lot of HD programming currently in the marketplace. Sports fans will not have to look very hard to get their fill of live events:

  • ESPNHD and ESPN2HD will televise some 460 live sports events by the end of 2005 and are expected to deliver over 650 HD telecasts in 2006.
  • Fox Sports Net will deliver 475 pro hockey, basketball and baseball games in HD over the next 12 months, more than double last year's tally.
  • HBO will end 2005 with a record 11 live HD premium network and pay-per-view boxing telecasts.
  • By the end of 2005, Turner Network Television will have telecast 164 live sports events — from National Basketball Association games to Professional Golfers' Association of America tournaments to NASCAR races.
  • Showtime distributed all of its monthly Showtime Championship Boxing events in HD this year.
  • HD networks In Demand, HDNet and Rainbow Media Holding's Rave HD sports network also provided a slew of HD events during the year.

Fox Sports Net CEO Randy Freer points to rapid drop in the cost of uplinking equipment, as well as an increase in the number of HD-ready production trucks for the explosion of live HD telecasts.

Despite the huge increase in HD sports programming, it has barely kept pace with the year-to-year growth of HD viewers. ESPN vice president of strategic business planning and development Bryan Burns predicts that in 2006, more HD sets will be sold in this country than standard-definition sets. High-def sales are expected to reach the 8 million mark this year, according to the Consumers Electronics Association.

“The CEA will tell you that sometime in the year 2008, we will hit 100 million cumulative HD sets that will be sold in this country, and 74.8% of all [television] viewing will come through an HD set,” Burns says.

With young males making up the lion's share of HDTV purchases today, ESPN's Burns says sports content is one of the key drivers of those sales. “Our research says that in the male 18-34 demographic, ESPN viewers are more inclined to have an HD set than the non-HD viewers,” he says, adding that the network does not know whether viewers are actually watching the standard feed.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE

Despite a major increase in the number of HD trucks in the field over the past few years, executives say it's impossible to turn every game into a HD telecast because of the sheer quantity.

“In 2003-04 we did about 35 to 40 [college basketball HD telecasts]; in 2004-05 we did 75 to 80, and this year we'll do 160. But that's still only half the ones we telecast,” says ESPN's Burns. “Even though there are many more trucks now than there were a couple of years ago, we still can't get an HD truck to go to the Eastern Kentucky-Central Missouri State game, and we carry a lot of those kind of games on HD.”

And even though HD production costs have come down significantly over the past two years, it's still very expensive for many networks to telecast every live event in HD.

While HBO Sports offered all seven of its World Championship Boxing telecasts in HD last year, it didn't convert its Boxing After Dark series to HD due to “budgetary” reasons, according to Rick Bernstein, executive producer for HBO Sports.

CHEAPER THAN OTHER GENRES

Yet despite HD's financial hurdles, he says it's still cheaper to deliver a live sports telecast than it is for other content genres to deliver HD programming from a studio or a set.

“The cost of us renting a high-def truck is more manageable than for a network to have to convert the entire studio into a high-def facility,” Bernstein says. “That's probably the reason why you're not seeing the network news in high def yet.”

For Fox Sports Net and its affiliated regional sports nets, the challenge of choosing which sports events to shoot in high-def has added challenges. Along with production costs and HD truck availability, Fox Sports' Freer says the company has to navigate around various regional HD rights issues before it can determine which games to telecast in HD.

Nevertheless, Freer says that Fox Sports Net is on pace to televise 90% all of its Major League Baseball telecasts in HD by 2007.

In fact, sports network executives believe that it's only a matter of time when almost every live televised sporting event will be delivered in HD quality.

“HD is what the sports viewer is expecting now more than ever, because every significant sports event is in HD,” Bernstein says.

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