Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

By Request: Sports, entertainment, and tech

Subscriber Rob writes, “What do we have to look forward to in the next few years as tech savvy baseball fans?”

There’s no doubt that the entertainment business in general, and sports in particular, will be dramatically altered by technological progress. I’m not a sports analyst by any means, but I’m a lifelong sports fan who also spends a lot of time thinking about tech stuff. So let me take a stab at it. Keep in mind, these are just a few broad ideas. I reserve the right to change my mind later.

The problem with the in-stadium experience is that sports are almost always going to be better experienced on television, where you get the very best angles, close up, with instant super-slow-motion replay. I attend a half-dozen baseball and college football games every year, and it’s clear that attending a game in person is still an entertainment experience—but it’s not the same experience as watching on TV, and so stadium experiences will need to continue to grow and change and innovate in order to provide something that’s worth your time. Ordering food and drinks from your seats via app is a start, as is providing free access to video replays on your mobile device when in the stadium. I wonder if augmented-reality tech could make watching a game live a bit more like watching it on TV, if you could call up stats and see replays in your field of vision while also watching the sport live. But at some point, doesn’t that just become watching TV? Why pay for a luxury box so you can watch the game on the TV set in the box, when you can just do that at home?

Sometimes, though, I wonder if the future of live sport is going to be a dramatic split between the people willing to pay huge amounts of money for an ultimate luxury experience, and the people who pay relatively little in exchange for providing a studio audience for the televised experience. My college football team, the California Golden Bears, make more money from their conference’s television deal than they can possibly make from selling tickets to people like me who want to see the game live. As a result, the games are increasingly scheduled in TV-friendly—and spectator-unfriendly—time slots. If that trend continues, they’re going to need to scramble to ensure that their lucrative television product isn’t being contested in front of an empty stadium. It’s a tough one.

Recently Major League Baseball has experimented with an all-you-can-eat monthly or season pass at various venues; for a flat price you and a guest can come to as many games as you want during the season. I think innovation like this, built on the back of the premise that everyone has a smartphone, will continue. Buy a subscription to the home team, come to a certain number of games a year, and maybe even watch as you’re dynamically assigned a seat in the stadium based on what’s available. Maybe you get a better seat if you pre-order dinner?

But of course, the in-home experience is where things could really change. High frame rates, higher definition pictures, and virtual-reality broadcasts can all make the sport more immersive. I’m hoping that viewers might one day be able to select what sort of stats and annotations they want to see on screen, or even pick their audio source of choice. I’ll crank up the sabermetrics, thank you very much.

But the truth is, the biggest way technology may impact sports is in how it’s played. We are just now discovering facts about sports we have been playing for more than a century, all due to computer tech that allows every movement of player and ball on a field to be recognized, logged, and analyzed. From baseball to soccer to basketball, our conception of what makes a good player is changing. And the players themselves are using video and statistical analysis to improve themselves, advanced medical techniques and appliances to train more intelligently or heal faster… we’re truly in the middle of a revolution in how sports are played and how athletes train.

Despite all this, though, the fact remains: sport remains an entertainment business only so long as it remains entertaining. The moment it isn’t fun anymore, the jig is up. It’s up to the sports leagues to figure out how to navigate our changing entertainment landscape and remain part of our entertainment budgets. The more that technology can connect me to my teams and make me care, the more likely they are to succeed.

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