Field of Dreammakers

Sports magazines, radio, and especially TV have transformed the way fans view their games.

Several weeks before the first pitch of the centennial World Series, set to be begin Saturday in a game that marks the climax of the national pastime's lengthy season, a new poll of American sports preferences came out.

To no one's surprise, Major League Baseball again fell short of professional football. What was surprising was the margin: More than twice as many fans picked football in the survey by Harris Interactive. In 1985, the difference between the sports was 1 percent.

The disparity offers fresh evidence of how the increasingly supersized media culture has changed the way people view sports, say industry executives and analysts. Specialty magazines have widened fans' perspective by writing engagingly about far-off teams and personalities. The rise of sports-talk radio has heightened the interest by letting fans have their say on air. And the Internet, as well as video games, promises to again change the way sports are perceived.

But it is television that has transformed sports. It has created national and even international audiences for big contests, invented new ways of watching the game, such as instant replay and highlight films, and pumped huge amounts of money into leagues around the world. The United States has seen the biggest impact.

"You look at the arrival of TV in the 1950s and you see the national pastime changing before your very eyes," says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "Baseball is a pastoral game, one that offers a wonderful firsthand experience. Football? Football and TV were made for each other, and they embraced one another very quickly."

The pace of the game, the size of the field, the once-a-week Sunday schedule, the overblown heroes-and-villains story lines - everything about football fits TV.

Broadcast rights next year across the major sports and networks will approach $6 billion - as much as the networks spend annually on scripted entertainment programming, according to trade publication TelevisionWeek. Most leagues build their season schedules, and start times, with TV coverage in mind.

The mere notion of being able to watch a game in your living room instead of going to a stadium transformed the concept of spectator sports. The intimacy and prevalence of TV made following sports a constant activity.

The relentless expansion of cable channels and satellite offerings during the last 25 years brought more choices, as well as unintended consequences. The self-awareness of players and coaches became readily apparent. Each constituency played to the cameras, often to their detriment.

As with all programming, sports has suffered its share of slumping ratings. Viewers have infinite choices. The game of the week has become the game of the moment. Nevertheless, network executives often find sports programming irresistible. Last year, for example, Fox wrote off $1 billion in losses from its sports broadcast deals, yet company executives remain bullish about sports on TV.

"Let's face it," says Frank Deford, a veteran journalist who has written for Sports Illustrated since 1962, "TV drives the agenda. It's what's in our magazine, it's what people talk about."

Those dollars and broadcasts aren't just crucial for the leagues and franchises. Skyrocketing TV contracts, in most cases, help pay - and boost - player salaries.

Every decade or so since World War II, just as experts became convinced the relentless pursuit of watching others exercise must be played out, the sports universe expanded yet again.

Consider ESPN, which started in 1979, that long-ago era when professional basketball finals were shown on tape- delayed broadcasts rather than live in prime time, as they are now. Today, summer leagues comprising high school players routinely appear on national TV.

"Everything changed when ESPN went on the air," says Robert Wussler, an industry consultant and former executive at CBS and Turner Broadcasting. "All of a sudden, you had the highlights 24 hours a day and you had a place where a lot of the lesser sports found a toehold."

Years ago, a University of Maryland fan who moved to, say, Florida, had few options when it came to following the squad. "The funny thing is, people were [complaining] about having too much on TV even then," says Mike Trager, a consultant and former chief executive at Clear Channel TV. "The sentiment was, 'This ESPN thing will kill it.' "

Now fans can get every professional football game delivered to their homes over the course of the entire season for $200. Similar on-demand plans exist for all major sports leagues and big colleges.

In 1976, the three networks carried 1,000 hours of sports annually. Today, with regional networks and the innumerable cable and satellite offerings, that figure is near 100,000 hours a year. In other words, for every day that goes by in America, there are 11 days' worth of sports programming.

Other media play a role, too. Mr. Deford says Sports Illustrated, which remains the nation's most popular sports magazine, changed the landscape by making conversations about teams and leagues a national topic, not a regional one. No longer did fans just pay attention to their hometown teams. The magazine created awareness of far-flung coaches and players, packaged in a literary but conversational manner. It was Sports Illustrated, after all, that popularized the now-ubiquitous NCAA men's basketball tournament. Before that, the National Invitational Tournament at Madison Square Garden routinely received more attention.

Today, the national conversation extends to the online world. The Internet serves as a home for endless news, fan sites, rumor-mongering, and more.

"Now you can get on the Internet at the office and have a running box score in front of you as the game is being played," says John Dahl, an executive producer at ESPN Classic, a network dedicated to replaying old games and burnishing legends of yesteryear with a steady stream of profiles and documentaries.

In many cases, the Internet serves as a companion to sports-talk radio stations, which have sprung up across the country during the past two decades, spurring endless arcane debates about whose team might be superior.

As pervasive as sports media have become for sports fans, some pundits have wondered whether the prospect of stadiums as glorified studios might soon become reality. Why go, they say, when 60-inch, high-definition sets will soon render the live experience inferior?

"That won't happen," says John Walsh, ESPN executive editor. "There is still nothing like the experience of being at a game."

Cultural observers say a bigger threat may be video games. Many fans, not to mention a healthy percentage of the athletes, spend hours a day playing virtual versions of the real thing. The games are never interrupted by commercials. Most alluring, every game starts and stops whenever the Xbox or PlayStation proprietor takes matters in hand.

For those who might grow impatient during the real-life version of the current World Series as the batter steps out of the box to adjust his helmet for the ninth time, it's worth heeding sports-TV consultant Neal Pilson. "This stuff isn't going away," he says. "It's just getting started."

A jubilee for sports media

For those who enjoy countdowns, lists, special issues, and other signs of sports commemoration, the next 12 months will be a joy. Sports Illustrated and ESPN, the pillars of sports iconography, are themselves icons, celebrating their 50th and 25th anniversaries, respectively.

ESPN, with an empire that now encompasses four networks, a popular website, radio networks, theme restaurants, and a magazine, will use all of the above to celebrate the era of SportsCenter broadcasting that it created.

"Were going to use it as a chance to really look at what's happened during the past 25 years, which has essentially been a boom time in sports," says John Dahl, executive producer of the 32-hour programming block planned for the anniversary. Show topics will include the best and worst teams, best players, biggest stories, and the effect of ESPN's constant coverage on fan, player, and coach behavior, good and bad.

At Sports Illustrated, the bash has already begun. This summer, the venerable sports weekly launched a one-year countdown to its 50th birthday, culminating next August. A state-by-state caravan, commemorative books, and several special issues are planned.

Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, N.Y., says both ESPN and SI have become cultural institutions."

Sports Illustrated became the handbook of this sports world as it grew into a national phenomenon during the 1950s and beyond," he says. "With ESPN, its influence is very strong. SportsCenter and the culture of highlights, of seeing all the teams all the time, really start there."

Despite the successful launch of ESPN The Magazine, Sports Illustrated still dominates the category with circulation of 3.27 million and annual ad revenue of $644 million.

The ESPN25 programming begins next Memorial Day weekend and runs through Sept. 7, 2004.

That is the day when a small cable station called the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network launched from a Bristol, Conn., studio. Today, many in the industry refer to ESPN, whose various networks reach a combined 260 million households, as, simply, "Bristol."

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