Will technology ruin sports?

Highlights on cellphones and online fantasy teams alter how fans view games.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Even if they never slept, dedicated sports fans in the United States couldn't watch all the sports programming available. Now, technology is raising the ante. For example:

• ESPN has just announced plans to launch ESPN Mobile late next year, which will send customized sports news (and perhaps video) to owners of a new lineof ESPN mobile phones. By branding a service it already provides, the company hopes to attract the attention of young, affluent males.

• Pro basketball's "NBA Unwired" will allow cellphone customers to play video games and fantasy hoops, watch sports news on their phones, and use the voices of NBA stars as their ringtones.

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• Major League Baseball and the National Football League (NFL) have signed contracts with satellite radio companies, which allow fans to hear any game from anywhere in the US.

These and other new technologies have the potential to transform the way fans consume sports - a notion that sports leagues aren't entirely comfortable with. Will game highlights over cellphones deepen fan interest or whittle away at viewership of games? Do Internet-based fantasy leagues broaden a sport's appeal - or weaken loyalty to real teams?

The technology is so new that it's too early to draw conclusions. But the signs of change are unmistakable.

"Maybe we're going to become sports fans with Attention Deficit Disorder or something," says Kirk Wakefield, an expert on sports marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "We're so highlight-driven, and it wasn't like that 20 years ago."

One clear impact of technology is that more sports programming will be available more broadly than ever before. Through the Internet and satellite television packages like Direct TV's NFL Sunday Ticket, for example, subscribers can easily follow their favorite team at a distance - so a displaced New England Patriots fan in Dallas can still watch his team play or read all about it online.

"The hunger for information by sports fans is never to be underestimated," says John Kosner, ESPN's senior vice president for new media, which includes ESPN.com.

The technology also slices and dices programming in new and unconventional ways. The NFL Network now offers 10-minute highlights of every NFL game each week on the Comcast cable network. The highlights are "on demand" and can be viewed anytime at the viewer's leisure. An enhanced version of NFL Sunday Ticket, announced last month, will allow viewers to put several games on their screen at the same time, select what replays and camera angles they want, or watch a "red zone" channel, which will constantly switch from game to game in progress as teams are about to score. Viewers will also be able to search for and view just the plays of their favorite NFL players.

Feeding a fantasy

That feature may be of special interest to the 13 million to 15 million fantasy sports devotees, who pretend they're general managers, drafting players and competing against each other online based on statistics from real games.

Some observers wonder if fans' ability to surf sports highlights in search of the instant gratification of spectacular plays or to follow individual athletes will eventually erode loyalty to real sports teams.

"People are saying there's a new breed of fan," says Jeffrey Thomas, president of SportsBuff.com, which runs a number of online fantasy leagues. "There's so much that can be done, so many different ways to have fun with football now."

Fantasy leagues follow the psychological concept of belonging to an "in group," Baylor's Professor Wakefield adds. This can create situations where a fan might root for his team to win but for the other team's kicker to make a field goal because that player is on the fan's fantasy team.

Technology not only liberates fans, but players as well. Some pro athletes create their own websites to market themselves and their interests, such as a charity. For example, some 30 players, including future NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, All Pro running back Deuce McAllister, and 10 members of the world champion New England Patriots, have their personal websites managed by Paid Inc. of Worcester, Mass. Athletes can converse with fans directly using online chat boards.

With so much questionable information on the Internet, the websites are "a legitimate source" of news that comes directly from the player, says Robert Riggieri, a Paid Inc. vice president in charge of the websites. The sites may include personal observations or information on lesser-known players that general sites like ESPN.com don't contain, he adds.

Mobile phone fans

Professional leagues and teams are trying to decipher what effect this deluge of information and programming will have on them, Wakefield says. What's going to be the effect of fans using mobile devices at the arena or stadium? Will they be watching replays and videos and, if so, will that change the way they watch the game on the field? "I don't have the answers to that," he says. "Teams are trying to figure out if fans really want all that media content, if you will, at the game - and [wondering if it's] messing up the tradition of going to the game."

Mobile phones "are really becoming like media terminals, the so-called 'third screen' " after TVs and PCs, says Manish Jha, a senior vice president who heads up ESPN Mobile. "Younger people do tend to want to get information in discrete bits, and they do tend to multitask and be on the go all the time.... And certainly this type of medium is ideally suited for fans who are looking to stay connected even when they're not near a television or a computer."

Beyond following teams, "records and stars are a big deal [with fans], definitely," says David Card, a senior media analyst at Jupiter Research in New York. Though pro leagues "try to encourage loyalty" to a specific team, they also want to promote "interest in the entire sport," he says.

Still, Mr. Card remains skeptical that large numbers of people will want to flood their phones with information about sports - or anything else. "I don't think people want a lot of junk on their cellphones," he says.

A boost to betting?

Many observers predict gambling, including gambling on sports, may become one of the most popular activities on wireless devices such as mobile phones, just as it has become on the Internet.

Fantasy leagues can border on gambling, because some require participants to pay an entry fee and reward winners with a cash prize. ESPN Mobile "will probably stay away" from gambling, Card says, in part because it is regulated state by state and would become complex to sort out the legalities.

The same holds true for sports video on phones, which could become prevalent as more sophisticated handsets hit the market. Complex legal issues regarding the ownership rights of the games themselves, which have already been sold to TV networks, must be sorted out, Card says.

Meanwhile, millions of fantasy league players are using the Internet to learn everything they can about pro athletes to help them judge how well the players might perform. Some know as much or more about certain players than some general managers of real sports teams, Wakefield says. "That's obviously way different [than before the Internet], and that's fantasy [league] driven."

Some fantasy leagues require participants to manage a salary cap, just as real NFL general managers do.

"I think you're going to see more and more niches," says ESPN's Kosner, as fans find their personal passion online. ESPN.com itself is really a network of sites, he says, from boxing to golf, all of which are going to continue to develop and deepen.

And not just for popular US sports. ESPN.com already hosts the world's leading soccer site and is affiliated with the leading cricket site, Kosner says. "I think there's more to come. The Internet helps bring global sports to expats," he says. "That's one of the developments you're going to see more and more."

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