Sports TV’s Techno Enhancers

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Watching TV sports in the 1970s was a nice enough experience, but it now seems prehistoric as new technology innovations like computer graphics, data enhancements and streamed content give viewers new reasons to stay tuned. “I think it has a big effect,” says Jack Williams, president of Comcast SportsNet, in speaking of the new tech opportunities. “It just makes it easier to watch the game.”

Consider the popular yellow first-down marker developed by virtual graphic insertion company Sportvision, which is added to televised football games. “Now you go to a real football game, and you don’t see the yellow lines, and you wonder what’s wrong,” Williams says.

As these technologies proliferate, viewers can expect more help in understanding sports. “The more sports that are on television, the less knowledgeable the fan is,” says Nadine Gelberg, president and founder of GetCharged.org, a non-profit group focused on sports technology. “The technology allows people to just enjoy it.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that anything goes. “We do these kind of things because we truly believe they make the viewing experience better,” says ESPN senior vice president and executive producer Jed Drake. “But it can’t just be a science project.”

ESPN, like any innovator, has had its hits and misses. For example, its efforts to put miniature cameras into the bases during baseball games didn’t provide much value for viewers, so ESPN discontinued it. “The end result failed because it didn’t show you much,” Drake says. “It didn’t really provide a better angle.”

Sports also suits HDTV, which was a challenge in the early days. “The only way to get it done was to build your own truck,” Williams says. But now, several companies provide HD equipment. “More and more HD trucks are being built,” he says. “It really enhances the game. The only thing we can’t give them is a good team.”

Other successful technologies help fans understand the game. During Seattle Mariners Major League Baseball games, Fox Sports Net Northwest employs Switzerland-based DartFish’s “StroMotion” technology to reveal a baseball pitch’s trajectory. It also uses the company’s “SimulCam” engine to overlay the technique of two pitchers or batters so that viewers can compare their performances. “It’s our No. 1 innovation,” says Mark Shuken, the network’s vice president and general manager.

Even the leagues are helping TV producers enhance programs to retain viewers. The Professional Golfers’ Association’s “ShotLink” data-management system supplies a bevy of statistics. Eventually, PGA Tour statistics could help die-hard golf fans delve into previously unavailable stats. “People could ask, 'What club did he just use?’” says PGA senior vice president of broadcasting Gil Kerr. “For golfers, they just drink that stuff up.”

TV producers also must keep up with the Internet, where interactive sports stats are commonplace. For example, Continental Vista Broadcasting’s Maximum Sports Broadcasting Network (MSBN.tv) lets users watch college sports via streaming video, enhanced by real-time statistics, live chats with other users online and even the ability to order food deliveries while they watch. Continental’s CEO Greg Demetriades says such features will eventually adorn TV screens as well.

“Comcast could make money every time someone orders a pizza,” he says. With a broadband connection, other enhancements could follow.

The Internet has already done much of the research and development. “It’s just a gold mine waiting to be tapped,” says Steve Salinger, CEO of interactive software firm Cauldron Solutions in New York City. “But the Internet is also the greatest threat, in that it has 10 years of developmental experience on the cable industry.”

Of course, opinions vary on some new concepts. For example, letting viewers choose their own camera angles has been popular on British Broadcasting Corp.’s and British Sky Broadcasting’s sports telecasts in the United Kingdom. But it’s unclear whether U.S. viewers will take to the multiple-camera concept. “People generally don’t want that opportunity,” says Shuken. “Directors and producers are better at that. People realize how difficult that is once they try to do it.”

The industry may be about to find out if that opinion has weight. In May, interactive TV pioneer OpenTV Corp. announced its new “SportsActive” product to enable viewers to pick camera angles and even different audio feeds. Such a feature could allow viewers to follow Tiger Woods through all 18 holes.

Cable has already experimented with the multiple-camera feature. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing’s In Car subscription sports package allows viewers to follow an individual driver through an in-car camera and even receive detailed statistics provided in real time. At some point, consumers may want to customize their viewing of other sports as well.

“The director only has two eyes, and he can’t see everything,” says direct broadcast satellite analyst Jimmy Schaeffler, chairman of the consulting and research firm The Carmel Group. “We’re a nation of choice, and camera angles give you choice.” Schaeffler says that DirecTV’s plans to emulate BSkyB’s multiple-camera interactivity could become a competitive advantage if the cable industry doesn’t follow suit.

Of course, the interactive future could go any direction. Within the next 12 months, fledgling programmer HorseRacing TV plans to let viewers place bets in the roughly 30 states that allow it, and the network in July inked a deal with EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network, adding 10 million homes to its nearly 2 million cable households. “Next year at this time, we’ll be talking about millions of people with interactive wagering,” says HorseRacing TV president Bill Bridgen. “It will start to wake people up.” He says the cable industry could get a piece of that action.

But in the end, it may be too early to tell how things will shake out. Ultimately, sports fans will decide where it all goes from here.

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