Walk into San Francisco's SBC Park for a Giants baseball game, and you can bring along a laptop or hand-held computer to follow the action or check your e-mail. This year the ballpark has been wired with Wi-Fi, which allows wireless connection to the Internet.
The same will be true later this year at the new arena where the Charlotte Bobcats, the latest expansion team of the National Basketball Association, will play.
And during Tuesday night's Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Houston, fans around the world will be able to vote online for the game's most valuable player. Earlier this year, more than 12 million votes were cast online at MLB.com as fans chose the starting lineup for the game. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly had the All-Star game being played on Sunday night.]
Sports has gone online in a big way, both on computers and on mobile devices. The advent of 24/7 access to sports events - whether at work, on the golf course, or at a restaurant - is allowing sports-crazed Americans to take their love of the game to a new level of appreciation. Or, some would say, obsession.
And their numbers would indicate that online sports fans extend far beyond the computer-nerd crowd.
"Today's online [audience] is close to being as ubiquitous as [the] TV [audience] is," says Michael Goodman, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group in Boston who tracks the online and wireless entertainment industry.
Baseball, with 2,430 regular-season games over six months, especially lends itself to the kind of in-depth coverage websites provide. It's the perfect convergence of the Web's ability to store, massage, and display data and baseball fans' love of statistics. "Baseball fans pay more attention to numbers than CPAs," sportswriter Jim Murray once wrote.
MLB.com, the website run cooperatively by all 30 major league teams, boasts 3 million to 4 million visitors per day. Along with conventional game stories and stats, it offers Gameday - an intense graphics page that lets viewers follow a game's statistics live. An illustration shows where each ball is pitched, the pitcher's ERA and the batter's average are updated after each at bat, and reports of what's happening in other games crawl across the bottom of the screen.
"There's so many moving parts, so much information on it, you can spend 30 minutes watching it easily," says Bob Bowman, CEO of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which runs MLB.com.
About 95 percent of the material on MLB.com is free, Mr. Bowman says. But avid fans who plunk down $99 for the season (MLB.com will have about 750,000 paying customers this year, he says) receive a slew of other nifty features. "Video box scores," available after each game, allows users to click on any stat from the game and see a video of that play. "So if [the Yankees'] Derek Jeter made an error, and you just want to see him flub up that play, it'll do that for you," says Jim Gallagher, an MLB.com spokesman.
By choosing "condensed game," users can watch an entire game in 20 minutes, seeing just the "payoff pitches" that result in hits, errors, or outs. Message boards let fans discuss their favorite teams and players.
"They can be brutal," Bowman concedes. "There's no gray in sports. The world is black and white there."
Like other sports sites such as ESPN.com, MLB.com appeals to fantasy league players, who select their own roster of major league players and compete against each other based on how each player performs in real games.
"You can register your fantasy team with us, and tomorrow morning when you wake up, in your e-mail inbox will be videos of what each of those 23 players did," Mr. Gallagher says.
Sports is becoming a hot property among mobile phone users, too. Companies are springing up to deliver text, audio, and even video.
"If Barry Bonds hit a home run last night, I can see a video of it" on a cellphone, analyst Goodman says, noting that this new technology is still in its infant stage, with picture quality that "still lags even online video."
Sports on radio led to it moving into television and finally the Internet. Now people want it with them everywhere they go, says Jon Bukosky, CEO of Wirejack Inc., a southern California company that is developing games and other wireless services.
"Wireless is the last mile of entertainment," he says. "Sports is a lifestyle, and we're going to go after it hard."
Wirejack plans to bring out a half-dozen or so football features this fall. In one such feature, professional players will shoot pictures from their games and practices on their camera phones and send them to subscribers via e-mail. Wirejack even plans to introduce a field-goal kicking game where the phone's vibrator will shake if the player's kicked ball rattles off the goal post.
MobiTV, based in Berkeley, Calif., delivers live feeds of several cable TV channels in real time to Sprint mobile-phone customers, including College Sports Television and Fox Sports. It's also signed a deal with MLB.com to deliver radio broadcasts of games to mobile phones.
"Major League Baseball has been one of the strongest innovators in new media," says Paul Scanlan, cofounder of MobiTV. The audio service costs $10 per month, doesn't use any phone-call minutes, and includes broadcasts of all 30 teams, he says.
Nick Striglos, who ran a computer and office equipment company in the Chicago area before he recently retired, had never owned a cellphone. Then he learned he could listen to Chicago Cubs broadcasts on it. "I'm a rabid Cubs fan," he says.
Mr. Striglos has had the MobiTV audio service for about a month now and uses it to keep up with the game while he's on the golf course.
He's excited, too, about listening to broadcasts when he travels to California and Florida later this year, where the games won't be broadcast. He'll even hear the familiar voices of announcer Pat Hughes and former Cubs player Ron Santo. "I get play-by-play with the Cubs' own broadcasters," he says.