Decade in sports: High-tech era an instant hit
The mammoth video board that hangs above the field at new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, is symbolic of this decade's high-tech era of sports. (Tom Pennington, Getty Images )
When the decade began, Rj Smith didn't even own a cellphone. Today, he doesn't go anywhere without his BlackBerry. It has become his instant link to the world of sports.
"Now I follow all of the sports when I'm out on the road, or just hanging out," the 29-year-old software salesman from Denver said as he had lunch at the Blake Street Tavern sports bar in LoDo last week. "I check news and scores of the Nuggets or the Broncos. The technology has come a long way."
Smith's buddy, 27-year-old Danny Fagan of Washington, D.C., is a die-hard Redskins fan. An application on his phone takes him to Facebook, where he gets his daily fix of news about his struggling team.
"In an instant, I can find out about a trade or injuries," Fagan said. "It's pretty amazing." It's been a remarkable decade in sports, filled with triumph, tragedy and gossip. But the biggest sports story of the 2000s was the marriage of technology and information ¡ª iPhones, iPods, the Internet, Twitter, high-definition television and high-tech stadium experiences changed the sports landscape for fans and athletes alike.
"We can bring the viewer closer to the game than ever before. That's where I think technology really works well," said Gerard J. Hall, president of Sports Media Technology Corp., one of the nation's leading providers of on-screen graphics, instant statistics and other production magic responsible for the live TV experience sports fans have come to expect.
The years 2000-09 saw Tiger Woods win 56 PGA Tour tournaments, including 12 majors, and become the first billionaire athlete. The decade ended with tabloid coverage of his womanizing ways and dramatic fall from grace.
The decade gave us Barry Bonds' steroid-tainted chase to become baseball's home run king, Michael Phelps' 14 Olympic gold medals in swimming and tennis star Roger Federer's 15 grand slam titles. The Red Sox finally busted the Curse of the Bambino and won a World Series. Two, in fact. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady hoisted the Lombardi Trophy three times.
But the most lasting changes in sports over the past decade were technological innovations that helped fans better understand and enjoy what they watched, and helped athletes improve their performance, from baseball players being able to review their swing on their iPods to Phelps making mincemeat of world records with help from his high-tech swimsuit.
Dr. Kim B. Blair, founder of the Sports Innovation Group LLC, an affiliate of the Massachusetts Institution of Technology, has been on the cutting edge of sports technology for the past decade. He has developed sleek skin suits worn by world-class skaters to new dimple patterns on golf balls to the latest in cycling technology, all designed to improve performance. But Blair concedes that the sports information revolution was a dynamic force in fans' enjoyment and understanding of what they're watching.
"Instantaneous information sharing is just everywhere now," Blair said. "Ten years ago, that wasn't the case. Now there is a huge appetite for information and an appetite for sharing information."
The television experience
There was a time in the mid-1990s when constant on-air graphics, even those that simply provided the time and score, were largely nonexistent during live television broadcasts. Viewers often had to wait for the announcer to give the score, or wait for a break in the action. That won't suffice anymore.
"If the game itself isn't compelling enough, there has to be something else, perhaps another story beneath the surface that gives them a reason to keep watching," Hall said. "Now the technology has evolved beyond just the score and the clock. Now we give viewers instant context. If Kobe Bryant drains a 3, now a stat box slides out showing that he's 3-for-7 from 3-point land with 23 points."
High-tech graphics, including the now commonplace yellow first-down line, and instant, in-depth statistics flashed on the screen, keep fans informed like never before.
"We are always working for that 'wow' factor," said Patricia Hopkins, Sports Media's vice president of marketing. "In this day and age, you have to be better and faster than your competitor."
The technology seems to reach new heights with every change of sports season. Researchers at ESPN recently developed a technique that allows its on-air basketball analysts to dissect plays and interact with virtual versions of NBA players. It's as if the analysts are stepping into a video game to demonstrate strategies.
For baseball, the networks now have the capability of tracking the ball from the pitcher's hand to the catcher. "We can give them a dimension they otherwise wouldn't understand," Hall said.
The stadium experience
A strong case could be made that sitting at home, watching games on a 52-inch, high-definition television is the ultimate fan experience, much better visually, not to mention cheaper, than attending a sports event. That's why new stadiums are incorporating all of the bells and whistles of the home viewing experience.
Deep in the heart of Texas, the high-tech era has been taken to an even higher level. The new $1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium in Arlington features a mammoth 600-ton, four-sided Jumbo-Tron that is 160 feet long, making it the world's largest.
But Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wanted more than just replays, scores and statistics on his scoreboard. He wanted fans in the stadium to see the graphics they would get watching at home on TV. So he hired Sports Media Technology Corp. to create software to produce images on the scoreboard similar to what the company produced for a "Sunday Night Football" broadcast.
"We wanted to provide an in-stadium experience that matches what you would get at home," Hopkins said.
The new Yankee Stadium, built at a cost of more than $1.3 billion, features an enormous high-definition video board above the batter's eye in center field. The board measures 59 feet by 101 feet. During games, the board displays the linescore in a strip across the bottom, player information with an enormous picture in the middle, and another strip at the top with a strikeout counter, a radar gun reading and a pitch count.
Scattered throughout the stadium are nearly 1,400 high-definition televisions, ensuring that fans don't miss any action, even if they are at hot dog stands or in the restrooms. And wireless Internet is available in every section of the new Yankee Stadium.
Growth of fantasy sports
In October, 26-year-old Cameron Pettigrew was fired from his job at Fidelity Investments near Fort Worth, Texas, because he was the commissioner of a $20 fantasy football league. Pettigrew and three fellow employees lost their jobs because the company had a policy against playing fantasy sports at work. While the firings may have been shocking, the interest in fantasy sports shows no signs of slowing.
"It's just exploded," said Cecil Lammey of Footballguys.com, which bills itself as providing "fantasy football info for the serious players."
"When I first started playing in 1993, it was just six guys getting together," Lammey said. "We'd do our own scoring and get our own stats out of USA Today. The Internet made it so much better and has played a huge part in the growth."
Fantasy sports, where fans select real athletes who compete for make-believe teams, have become hot topics on smart phones and big business on social networking sites. Fantasy sports, especially football, took off during the last decade as more and more websites made sports results and statistics instanteously available, and sites such as Yahoo! began to host fantasy sports leagues.
According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, there are more than 27.7 million fantasy players in the United States, and annual revenue is in the range of $800 million to $1 billion. It's estimated that 80 percent of those who play fantasy sports play football.
But more than just money is involved. According to USA Today, the average fantasy football player belongs to 2 1/2 leagues and spends up to nine hours a week preparing for the next game.
"Fantasy sports provide ultimate water cooler talk," Lammey said. "I think it spurs men's competitive nature."
An entire high-tech industry sprouted over the past decade to support fantasy fanatics. Companies send out text messages with injury updates on players, software is available with complex algorithms to tell you which players to pick. And iPhone applications allow fantasy players to manage their team anytime, anywhere.
At the Blake Street Tavern in LoDo, Smith and Fagan watched ESPN over lunch and talked about the decade that changed the way they relate to sports. Sports technology kind of sneaked up on them, they said, but now it's part of their daily lives.
"I don't even have to be connected to my TV to know what's going on," Fagan said. "I'm constantly on my phone, looking up scores."
How engrained in technology has the sports culture become? Smith, the young man who didn't own a cellphone in 2000, recently took a friend to a Broncos game at Invesco Field at Mile High. She was confused when she looked down at the field.
"She asked me where the yellow first-down line was and why it wasn't on the field," Smith said with a laugh. "It's kind of funny how you become accustomed to those things."