Pro sports leagues give us a mix of digital experiences

Column: Thanks to my phone and computer, I watch more sports than I ever did on TV

By , Columnist for The Christian Science Monitor

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    Boston Red Sox's Jed Lowrie hits a single to drive in the winning run in Game 4 of baseball's American League division series. Columnist Tom Regan caught the game online.
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Monday night, as Jed Lowrie knocked a single into right field at Fenway Park and Jason Bay rounded third and slid home with the winning run (who knew Canadians could slide like that!), I leapt up from my computer and did a dance of joy.

That’s right, not in front of my TV, but in front of my computer. I have spent many hours over the past summer watching or listening to the Red Sox online.

I’ve mentioned a few times in past columns that I don’t get many TV channels where I live in rural Virginia. Cable hasn’t reached this far yet, and any satellite signal is obstructed by trees. So I rely on my two-year-old rabbit ears to receive local channels. Unfortunately, all the shows look like they were taped during a Wisconsin snow storm.

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Regardless, I’m a huge fan of professional sports – in particular, any game involving the Red Sox. I’m a round-ball fan, too. Pro football ranks third on my “must watch” list, as I enjoy a good game on the gridiron as much as anyone. So scratching my itch with only limited access to sports’s most important medium has been a bit of an experiment.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you can keep up using only digital media. But it’s not quite the same experience for all the major sports.

Let’s start with baseball. For several years, Major League Baseball has offered fans a chance to watch their favorite teams online. For about $120 a year, I can watch almost all the baseball games I want on MLB.com – not just Red Sox games.

This season, I’ve watched Yankee games, Dodger games, the Rays, and others. Once you pay the subscription fee, you can view any team’s local broadcast. So when I watch the Sox, I listen to the play-by-play from Red Sox announcers Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy.

But MLB.com is far from perfect. If you live in the same area as your favorite team, you can’t watch its home games online – even when you’re traveling and in a distant state. (To get around the MLB system, I use a ZIP Code in the sign-up process that basically lets me watch what I want.) MLB also blacks out games broadcast on national television. For some reason, the league doesn’t seem to understand that the main reason that people watch games on the computer is that they can’t get it on TV.

MLB.com also does not carry playoff games live online, so while I was leaping around last night, it was because of the audio call, not seeing it happen.

But MLB does offer a few nice extras. For instance, I often follow the games on my cellphone when I’m at a Parent-Teacher Organization meeting for instance (when I don’t get caught doing it, that is). Not video, but a pitch-by-pitch update of the action that even features a little batter and a strike zone that lets you know where the last pitch was. Pretty cool. I also use my phone at other times to keep up with sports news.

Basketball, football, and hockey are a bit of a puzzle.

For now, they do not offer online live coverage of games. They only offer video highlights and audio. They’ve also chosen different subscription models. NBA.com’s All-Access pass and the NHL.com’s Game Center give you game audio free of charge. The NFL’s Field Pass charges about $40 a year to listen to games. My experience with the NFL’s audio has been pretty miserable so far. The quality is not great and the audio “player” is cumbersome and difficult to tell whether it is working.

But if you don’t live near your favorite teams, audio is better than nothing. After all, you often don’t get to watch your favorite teams on the tube if you don’t live near them either.

I also enjoy listening to sports talk radio, such as the “Mike and Mike” morning show on ESPN. But in the Washington area, I often can’t listen to that show on the radio, especially during football season, because everything is Redskins, Redskins, Redskins.

No offense to Skins owner Dan Snyder, but I’m not a fan of his team. So instead, I go to ESPN.com and select the webcam option. So not only do I get to listen to the radio show, but I get to watch it, too. (The interesting thing about the webcam is that it shows you what the hosts are doing, even when they are not on the air.)

While I can’t get live video of many of the professional sports, all the leagues’ main sites and ESPN offer next-day highlights, so you do get to see what happened.

So I don’t feel sports deprived at all. In fact, I think I see more sports these days than I did when I was watching TV.

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