Sports biz: screen play

Professional football’s enduring entanglement with television began to generate its first serious sparks in December 1958, when NBC televised the NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, drawing an audience estimated at 45 million viewers.

The network couldn’t have picked a better game: Baltimore won 23-17 in a thrilling overtime victory that has since been canonized as “The Greatest Game Ever Played” (the title of an ESPN documentary) and “The Best Game Ever” (a 2008 book by Mark Bowden).

Since then, the love affair between television and football has only gotten steamier, with breakthrough technologies like robot-commanded cameras and high-definition resolution enriching the appeal of a sport that plays beautifully in the living room. Recent experiments in 3D presentation of football games have teased at what’s next: spectacularly immersive experiences that come closer than ever to replicating the live event.

That very progression is increasingly troubling to NFL and college teams that have a pointed interest in keeping their stadiums full of ticket-buying, girder-stomping, jersey-wearing, refreshment-gulping, cash-spending fans. There may come a point – and for some fans it’s already here – where the appeal of watching a game in HD splendor at home trumps the allure of driving across town, presenting your bar-coded ticket and entering the stadium.

Concern about preserving live-game luster is what’s driving the deployment of a novel video gadget that’s being field-tested this season by 12 NFL teams, the Denver Broncos included. About 5,000 Broncos season-ticket holders who responded to a preseason e-mail invitation now have one. The FanVision device, developed by a Florida company, is about the size of a thick paperback novel. Outfitted with a high-resolution, 4.3-inch display screen, it connects to an over-the-air communications network that broadcasts throughout Invesco Field and surrounding terrain – nearby tailgate parking lots included.

Push a few buttons and you can summon instant replays, highlights and live broadcasts of other NFL games, exclusive camera angles you won’t see on the scoreboard, fantasy-football scores and more.

FanVision is the first entry in a push by the Broncos to upgrade the live-game experience by leveraging new possibilities of information technology, says Malcolm Freeman, senior vice president of business development for the Broncos. “Obviously in the last several years there’s been a ton of advancement, from plasma TVs to online products, that allow fans to digest huge volumes of football content,” he says. But Freeman is dead set on making sure nothing beats live, so he’s co-opting popular elements of the digital media era and bringing them to the stadium.

The irony here is thick: It used to be that fans watched games on TV to catch the live action from the stadium. Now, fans are importing television content into their seats.

Early FanVision reviews run the gamut. Some fans chiming in on Internet bulletin boards liked the idea of seeing multiple replay angles, particularly on controversial plays. But there are also worries about technology intruding on the real thing. At the Broncos’ 2010 home opener against the Seattle Seahawks, a friend of mine complained of missing several plays while fiddling with his FanVision device. Freeman says that was a common thread among first-time users. But he says the Broncos’ internal research showed fans seemed more comfortable with FanVision by game two against the Colts. Outside the stadium, the gadget seemed especially suited to the tailgate scene. No waiting for ESPN’s “NFL Primetime” to catch the big plays: They flow straight to the palm of your hand.

FanVision won’t be free for long. The business model envisions a subscription fee, or some sort of activation premium, on top of the $250 or so the device will cost. For now, it’s an experiment that tests the appeal of virtual experience versus reality. Let’s hope reality still has some life left. The idea of 75,000 fans sitting idly at Invesco Field, quietly tapping instructions into hand-held video devices while the defense attempts to stifle a goal-line drive, isn’t exactly the stuff of overwhelming home-field advantage.
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