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Tuesday, March 29, 2005
Updated: April 2, 12:25 AM ET
Wired, without the wire

By Darren Rovell
ESPN.com

Ten years ago, ESPN.com was born and television and newspapers soon went the way of the telegraph.

OK, it didn't quite happen that way. But in the years since ESPN.com launched on April 1, 1995, sports fans have grown accustomed to getting scores and watching highlights on their computer. They don't have to wait for the Sunday sports section to get their baseball statistics. And they can manage their own fantasy teams with just a few clicks of the mouse.

In the next decade, fans will still be able to watch "SportsCenter" and they'll still be able to load up their favorite highlights from their cubicles at work, but they will also be able to do it all on their cell phones. It's clear that the winner who emerges from all the expected advances in technology over the next decade will be the fan. For example, fans at the Kentucky-Michigan State game this past weekend could have called friends watching at home to see if Patrick Sparks' shot at the buzzer was in fact a 3-pointer. In the future, fans in the stands might be able to see the replay on their phones before a ruling is made.

Highlights in your hip pocket
Recently, MLB announced it will be launching a service that will allow fans to watch entire games and receive instant updates on their favorite team over their cell phones. Aaron LaBerge, ESPN.com's vice president of technology and business operations, helps identify some of the other ways you'll be experiencing sports over the next 10 years:

• Participate in a live fantasy draft on your Internet-connected game console

• Experience a personalized broadcast experience on your TV, radio, mobile phone and computer

• Watch game highlights and buy tickets using your mobile phone

• Watch any historical sporting event on demand

"Technology is really driving what we watch and how we consume it," said Mark Shapiro, ESPN's executive vice president of programming and production. "From the Internet to broadband to high definition to video-on-demand to digital video recorders and how that has changed the role of cable television. People consume sports in so many different ways that television, especially with young folks, isn't necessarily the first stop. So as a sports media company, you just want to make sure you are where the fans are at any waking moment. So when they turn to their device of choice, you have something there that is original, compelling and live."

Ted Leonsis, vice chairman of America Online and owner of the Washington Capitals, said new technology allows a sports fan to get news from a variety of sources. That's why leagues, teams and broadcasters feel the pressure to be in every space.

"There's been all sorts of research that young people have a greater capacity to multi-task than people a generation or two [before] them, so we are competing in an environment where we have to throw our programming out to consumers who are doing two or three or four things at the same time," Leonsis said.

Leonsis contends that while it was originally believed the Internet would replace television, it's now apparent the two work well side-by-side. "The Internet helps drive consumption," Leonsis said. "My 16-year-old son was the commissioner of his fantasy league and made me sign up for [DirecTV's] NFL Sunday Ticket, which I had no interest in, because he was going game to game with real interest in the players and the stats."

According to a recent Turnkey Sports poll, 39 percent of sports executives believe fans obtain their sports news from television. Approximately 30 percent believe fans obtain their news from newspapers, and another 30 percent believe they get it from the Internet.

But, only 6 percent of sports executives predict fans will obtain their sports information from newspapers in five years and 19 percent said they believe it'll be from television. Half of the sports executives polled predict that fans will receive their news from the Internet, while 25 percent envision fans' getting their news from a wireless device.

"It's not that the mobile phone is replacing television; television is still remaining king," said Michael Payne, special advisor to Formula One chairman and CEO Bernie Ecclestone. "But in terms of driving audience, driving eyeballs, the place to be is on mobile phones and we're seeing that throughout most of the European and Asian markets today. If you are not in that space, you've lost the fan."

With that in mind, ESPN will launch ESPN Mobile, the first national U.S. wireless phone service targeted to sports fans, in the coming year. The phone will feature one-click access to ESPN and ESPN.com content, including streaming audio and video clips.

The virtues of wireless have been most evident in NASCAR. Through the most expensive sponsorship in sports, the organization has teamed with Nextel/Sprint, which provides fans with phones that act as on-site track scanners, with real-time race data coming straight into the phone.

"We're seeing wireless as the predominant technology platform that delivers to our fans who have an insatiable appetite for news and information," NASCAR chairman Brian France said. In the next 10 years, the voice of that diehard fan is expected to grow substantially through new technology and an increased effort from media outlets like ESPN.com to interact with their readers.

"For ESPN's first 25 years, it was often a one-way street with fans – they just watched," said John Papanek, senior vice president and editorial director of ESPN New Media. "But now we're at a point where the fan will be much more involved. Not all sports fans have an opportunity to come visit Bristol, Conn., but over the next decade, through ESPN.com, our readers are going to be able to virtually experience what it's like to be at the national intellectual sports capital of the world."

ESPN.com's SportsNation, the meeting place for sports fans, will be significantly enhanced by technology over the next couple of years. By 2006, Forrester Research Group predicts that nearly five million U.S. households will have voice-over-Internet protocol, which essentially turns your computer into a phone and enables conversations to take place through an Internet connection.

Papanek envisions the day when Yankees and Red Sox fans will be in ESPN.com chat rooms watching another classic game on their computers. As these fans chat, characters who look like them mouth their opinions in real time as the fans talk into headsets. Papanek says fans potentially would then be able to rank the other fans, with the most vocal, passionate and knowledgeable fans for each team then serving as "team fan representatives."

"We'll continue to innovate, as we have in the past decade, and we'll be ready to give sports fans the information that they want when they want it," John Kosner, senior vice president of ESPN New Media.

Fans in the near future will be able to tailor the news on their entire ESPN.com home page according to their specific interests. Late last year, ESPN.com unveiled cartoons featuring Bill Simmons, aka "The Sports Guy," but Kosner says new technology could give way to longer-form pieces of original programming, perhaps including unique shows.

The next decade also is expected to be challenging for broadcast rights holders. Obtaining the television rights for a particular league's games doesn't necessarily mean the particular media company has the rights to the product in every application. ESPN, for example, currently broadcasts Sunday Night Football, but ESPN.com does not have the rights to offer video highlights of NFL games on the Web.

"As complex as the rights situation is now, technology is going to make this area even more complex as more devices are created and more applications are realized," said Jack Williams, who teaches sports law and the business of sports at Georgia State University's College of Law.

"The large networks could lose some power and control," said Jim Santomier, Sacred Heart's director of sports management program. "Colleges, which previously weren't willing to pay the cost, will be able to stream games that are not currently being broadcast to their Web sites at virtually no charge in great quality."

Santomier said technology would even let a school such as Connecticut cut off streaming video to fans within a 25-mile radius of its Storrs campus, causing a blackout of sorts.

But even today, many properties have identical rights. For example, local radio broadcasters carry rights to the local team's games. Those exact broadcasts then appear on XM Satellite radio as well as on MLB.com.

"There's a lot of hyperventilating about having the right to show every video highlight online," Kosner said. "But fans know when they can't get something, they often can find what they want to see on their television."

Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner and HDNet co-founder, is cautiously optimistic about how technology will enhance the fan experience. Cuban said he believes that if the Supreme Court sides with MGM in the music piracy case MGM v. Grokster, "then advancement in digital technology, those which will have the biggest impact on sports, is over."

MGM alleges that people have used Grokster's sharing software to pirate copyrighted music. Grokster, which Cuban is helping to fund in its legal battles, contends the company is not liable for illegal uses. If MGM wins, "the cost of trying to make sure that the music industry will never be able to find some infringing application will be so high as to make innovation impossible," Cuban said. If MGM prevails, Cuban said he'll feel less comfortable with allowing phones with video capacity into the arena or computers that could take advantage of American Airlines Center's wireless access.

"Let's say we come up with all kinds of fun applications," Cuban said. "We can let you grab highlights from the Jumbotron. We can mash your kid's pictures with a picture of Dirk Nowitzki dunking to make it look like your son made a pass. Or we can just let you take videos at the game of your family having fun. Except that the music industry probably will want us to pay for any music that is captured by the camera phone. The music industry might want us to ban the camera phones because the music that is played during the game could be captured outright and distributed digitally over the Internet. They think this could cost them lost sales."

If Grokster could be held liable, Cuban said he could be deemed responsible if fans bring their computers to American Airlines Center and use its wireless network to exchange music files.

Technology, however, may affect a more traditional sports form: the uniform. Although sports has proven to be more TiVo-resistant than other forms of programming, the inability of an advertiser to reach the fan during highlight watching could lead to more advertising on jerseys over the next 10 years, according to sports business consultant Dean Bonham of the Bonham Group.

Bonham has another prediction, the ultimate combination of sports and technology: As gate revenue becomes a smaller percentage of the revenue stream to sporting events, he suggests, we might one day see games played in high-tech studios to better maximize viewing in all platforms.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com.