Live Sports Score on the Web

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It's September, which means football widows and widowers around the country will get together and mourn the loss of their spouses over the next four months to a very alluring and seductive paramour: the 60-inch high-definition television set.

But this season, the big-screen TV will have to compete with a new-media mistress for the affections of die-hard football fans. That's because an unprecedented number of live pro and college football games will be available on the Web this fall.

Much of the increase in live pigskin content on the Internet is due to the National Football League's decision to join its other major pro-sports brethren in cyberspace and stream up to 238 Sunday afternoon regular-season pro football games over the Internet.

The league, through satellite provider DirecTV's popular “NFL Sunday Ticket” out-of-market subscription package, will now allow any Joe Six Pack living in Florida to get off the living room sofa and watch every game of his hometown New York Giants on his laptop while soaking up the sun in his backyard.

DirecTV is initially allowing for as many as 30,000 simultaneous users for its live-game broadband offering, which may have to be increased if the broadband service becomes popular with NFL Sunday Ticket subscribers who pay an additional $99 for Web access to the games through DirecTV's SuperFan package.

Add the streamed NFL games to the more than 300 live college-football games that sports sites such as ESPN360 and CSTV.com are scheduled to offer this season, and you can see why the Internet is fast becoming a viable alternative to the boob tube for die-hard football fans.

But it isn't just live football games that are scoring on the Web. Turner Sports's live, three-day Internet coverage of the opening rounds of golf's PGA Championship last month generated 2 million streams — an increase of 116% over last year's coverage.

Major League Baseball will reportedly draw a record 1 million subscribers this season to its $89 MLB.TV package of live baseball games and highlights.

And of course, let's not forget the millions of fanatic college-basketball fans who connected to NCAA.com to watch March Madness unfold live on their computers.

One of the reasons that more sports fans are watching more home runs, slapshots and putts online is that the video quality of live games is finally in the same ballpark as cable television.

Only a few years ago, when Internet-video images were transmitted at less than 300 Kilobytes per second, it was virtually impossible to enjoy a live, pixelated image of Barry Bonds swinging at a white blur coming from the pitcher's hand.

But with live images from MLB.TV transmitted at 700 Kilobits per second, Bonds looks almost as clear on a laptop screen as he does on a television set.

With 53 million households currently connected to the Web via broadband — up from only 10 million in 2001 — there are more sports fans seeking quality video to complement the up-to-the-minute sports stats, highlights and information such fans already turn to the Web for.

And with high-speed broadband connections expected to penetrate nearly two-thirds of all households by 2010, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, there's more incentive for cable sports networks like ESPN, CSTV and Versus — as well as the pro-sports leagues — to reach out to their avid fans on the Web.

That's why ESPN and Turner Sports insisted on securing broadband rights for each network's respective National Basketball Association telecasts as part of their combined eight-year, $7.4 billion television deal with the league reached earlier this year.

That's also the reasoning behind ESPN's recent announcement that its newly revamped ESPN360 broadband video service will offer more than 2,000 live sporting events over the next year, ranging from popular sports like college football and basketball to more obscure athletic pursuits like cricket and rugby.

And that's why football widows will have to figure out a way to short-circuit both the big-screen TV and the portable computer if they want to spend quality time with their spouses before next spring.

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