Screen Play

Changes in technology and law will revolutionize the way you watch the game

My day job as a media industry analyst lets me peer into on-the-drawing-board ideas that are either the Next Big Thing or, as is more often the result, the Next Big Fizzle. (Remember when the Broncos gave away those handheld video players you were supposed to use at the stadium? Me neither.)

I’ve been storing up some of the more provocative entries in the sports-meets-technology category to unleash on you, sports fan, as an interesting time in fandom approaches. Let’s tip it off.

Biometrics in real-time. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver took the stage at a recent industry conference to share what’s on the NBA’s drawing board. Forget virtual reality video: Silver’s dream is to vanquish the proscenium arch between player and fan by hooking up biometric feedback monitors that let you know, for example, the heart rate of the rookie point guard as he steps to the line to try to tie the game with a free throw. The idea is as fascinating as it is preposterous.

Legal betting on sports. The floodgates are opening thanks to the May 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing states to legalize sports gambling. You’re already seeing players jockey for position: ESPN’s uneven but interesting “Bad Beats” segment within the nightly “SportsCenter” program gives a hint of what’s to come. From a media perspective, we’ll see much more emphasis on coverage of the maddening comebacks and preposterous scores that sap one guy’s fortune while making some other lucky stiff rich.

Baseball at warp speed. Well, at least accelerated. An upstart online video network called DAZN might just have the formula baseball’s looking for to arrest degradation in fan interest. Run by former ESPN CEO John Skipper, DAZN forged a deal late in 2018 to present a baseball equivalent of the NFL’s Red Zone Channel, effectively cutting out the boring stuff (and face it, sports fan, baseball has a lot of boring stuff) to deliver a near real-time highlights reel from all across Major League Baseball: the minutes-ago home run that just put the Rockies up by two, the pickoff play that just sent Manny Machado lumbering (slowly, because it’s Manny Machado) back to the dugout. DAZN isn’t well known – it began life as an international sports-streaming service – but I’ll bet you its influence on baseball is ultimately big.

Micro-payments for major moments. TV networks and sports leagues are waking up to the fact that there’s money to be made from zeroing in on signature moments that determine outcomes. Here again, the NBA’s Silver is out in front. Forget ordering an entire season online or through your cable company. The NBA’s latest gambit is to sell you access to just the fourth quarter of a game you care about (and may have a betting interest in). If your smartphone alerts you that the Nuggets are within a few 3-pointers of upsetting the 76ers, you’ll have a chance to catch the outcome live. The current price for getting in on the action after the third quarter’s under way: $1.90.

The machine that watches sports. Powering the sports-media evolution are enhancements in artificial intelligence, the computing construct that marries huge data sets with an ability to parse sports action into definable data points drawn from audio and video information. The machine effectively watches sports, recording every bit of on-screen minutiae. Forget coarsely defined highlights like a game-saving interception from two teams you sort of distantly follow. Artificial intelligence narrows the field of play down to granular bits of data that zero in on exacting fan interests. If your wife’s brother’s neighbor’s kid plays wideout for the Cleveland Browns, you won’t only be able to see a real-time highlight reel of his contributions to today’s win, you’ll be invited to watch it without even having asked first. The machine knows all, including your favorite teams, players and on-field situations. It will identify it, package it up and present it to you on any screen you like.

Cynical it may be, but a realistic realization is that sports is the stuff that happens between commercials. With TV viewing mutating into an always-available library of content you watch whenever you want, sports remain a rarefied creation that can pull in massive audiences and give advertisers the scale they prize. Forward-looking executives are using technology to break down barriers and unlock new experiences. Regardless of who’s profiting, if you’re a fan, it’s not a bad time to be alive – and in front of a screen. 

Categories: Consumer, Culture, Industry Trends