Amid the alphabet soup of current television technology, from DVR to 3-D to DirecTV, there is a truism that remains as clear as high-definition television:
Americans love to watch sports on television, and lately more than ever.
The undisputed king of viewing is the NFL, which last year drew an average of 16.6 million viewers for its regular-season games, an increase of 9 percent over 2008. The coda to a remarkable season were the numbers for Super Bowl XLIV. The game was the most-watched program in television history, drawing an average of 106.5 million viewers.
But pro football wasn't the only sport that experienced huge viewership last season. From the BCS championship game (at 30.7 million, the most-viewed title game since 2006) to Game 7 of the NBA Finals (28.2 million) to the NCAA basketball title game (23.9 million) to the U.S-Canada gold-medal hockey game at the Vancouver Olympics (15.2 million), the year saw an explosion in big-event viewing. Industry experts offer varying reasons, such as the ubiquity of HD televisions, the bulging price of in-stadium viewing and the comfort television provides in economic downturns. What's clear is that the home-viewing experience -- and to a lesser extent watching with groups at a public place -- has become the most dominant expression of sports fandom.
"Whether its super slow motion replays, increased cameras or things like our first-down line, the experience of viewing at home has gotten incredibly better in the past five years," Fox Sports president Eric Shanks said.
Much of that is due to HD television, which is in 33 to 50 percent of American homes. ("If you look at our NFL ratings," Shanks said, "about 65 percent of our viewing comes from HD sets.") And with HD technology now mainstream, the hot topic among programmers is 3-D televisions hitting the consumer market. How quickly sports embraces 3-D depends on how quickly consumers embrace the platform (currently $2,500 to $4,500 for a set) and create enough scale to justify hefty production costs.
ESPN launched a 3-D network in June (the network plans to air 85 live 3-D events during its first year) and 3-D productions have been produced for the Masters and the 2010 MLB All-Star Game (by Fox and DirecTV). Interestingly, the NFL might end up being the least successful 3-D sport.
"The issues of doing 3-D in different sports are quite radically different," Jonathan Pannaman, ESPN's senior director of technology, told the Sports Business Journal recently. "In football, you're so far away from the action most of the time that to get a real 3-D feel is more difficult. ... The big debate for us at the moment is, is it possible to do a single production for both 2-D and 3-D? The consensus at the moment is it doesn't look likely. You've got to be lower and closer to do 3-D. There is an enormous amount of work to find the new right way to produce all of these sports. They're all out there. There's a huge amount to do, but I think every sport will find a way to present itself in 3-D."
While the jury is out on how successful 3-D will be, there are plenty of niche products for the home viewer to amp up a broadcast (such as DirecTV providing tennis fans coverage of six matches at once). Interestingly, Shanks said he does not expect those types of services to go beyond a single percentage of the audience. (Red Zone channels might be the one exception).
"The vast majority of fans still sit down, veg out on the couch and want a product given to them," Shanks said.
Over the past two decades, media industry types have talked about the convergence of the television and computer. John Ourand, a well-respected reporter for SBJ, says the increase in broadband and mobile sites has already drawn a significant number of viewers, and those numbers will only grow.
"TV networks say they have studies that show more people are watching games on TV and are using their computer and PDA to supplement that viewing," he said. "This is a trend that we first saw a couple of years ago in the NFL, when viewers would watch a game on TV while checking the computer for fantasy football updates. It's really exploded in the past year or so with the rise of social networks, like Facebook and Twitter. What's interesting about the rise of online activity is that TV networks say it's actually helping TV ratings."
Mobility is also likely to play a role in the debate between the home and in-stadium experience.
"In a relatively short time, people will be able to watch games wherever they happen to be," Ourand said.
So where does that leave in-stadium viewing? Pro sports owners know that they have to improve their product to compete with the home experience. Thus, it will become commonplace over the next few years for devices to be handed out or sold inside the stadium where fans can watch replays from different camera angles, get out-of-town-scoreboards, fantasy stats and announcer calls. The New York Times recently reported that the New Meadowlands Stadium will offer fans free smart-phone applications that they can glance at to see video replays, updated statistics and live video from other games.
"I think what's happening is all of the best things from the living room from a content perspective will start to get into the stadium as early as this year," Shanks said. "The stadium experience will start to get better. And people will still go to games. Remember, a lot of people have 70-inch televisions at home, but they still go to the movies, don't they?"