SI's vision of sports in the future is here


Last week's issue of Sports Illustrated paints what may appear to be a rather fanciful picture of life as a sports fan in 2001 -- wall-sized televisions, views of the game controlled from the home, pay-per-view programming complete with credits for watching commercials.

Some of that may not be as fanciful as it seems. In fact, as George Allen once said, "The future is now." According to a couple of cable television executives, much of the technology already exists -- if someone would pay for it.

"Just about everything they mentioned [in the article] will be available," said Don McGuire, executive producer of Turner Sports (TNT, TBS). "Some of it is already there. They just can't find any takers for it.

"If TNT wanted to, TNT could take all 10 of our cameras on an NFL game and make them available to the viewers."

"Virtually everything Sports Illustrated wrote about is do-able," said Seth Abraham, president and chief executive officer of Time Warner Sports (Home Box Office, TVKO). "It's been invented. This technology really exists.

"The problem is it's expensive. The cable operators aren't ready for it."

For those who don't have the magazine handy, sports fans supposedly will be able to act as their own directors, accessing -- don't you just love that word? -- programming from a home production truck for viewing on 8-foot-high screens and 16 smaller monitors, calling the shots by ordering up the end-zone camera or the third-base-line view.

Not only would it be big TV, but it also would be pay TV, as in pay-per-view. In this vision of the future, the networks are gone from the sports scene, and you pay your way into each game.

The television set as money pit is a frightening prospect, but pay-per-view isn't necessarily the second coming of The Blob, devouring all its path.

"I still think the three broadcast networks will be the big mommas," Abraham said. "I don't see much competition in that area.

"Pay-per-view will be larger, but in no way will it be dominant."

So, don't worry, the nightmare of nightmares, the Super Bowl on pay-per-view, isn't on the horizon. The networks likely will continue to provide regular doses of the major sports. That doesn't mean other changes aren't on the way, though.

"I do see regular-season packaging," McGuire said. "You could see when the NBA would package 10 Boston Celtics games. You could buy it like a magazine. I think that stuff could come very soon."

McGuire said that such packaging might hit the NFL first. In the second season of a four-year, multibillion-dollar contract with five networks, the league is likely to find those big bucks won't be on, under or anywhere around the bargaining table next time. Rights fees went through the roof, and the networks barely have the money to patch the ceiling.

You live in Baltimore and are sick of getting the Washington Redskins sent your way every week? Can we interest you in this nice Cincinnati Bengals package? Operators are standing by.

And the big growth, Abraham said, will be in regional sports networks such as Home Team Sports.

"Sports are a local franchise," he said. "If you're in Baltimore, you're an Orioles fan."

It's narrow-casting, not broadcasting, that will be more profitable, Abraham said.

"The [broadcast] networks are out there with a shotgun looking for viewers," he said. "What the regionals have is a fishing pole. They drop their line with the bait of local teams."

And, most likely, we'll bite.

As you were melting in the 100-degree temperatures this week, one thought coursed through your brain: football. ABC (Channel 13) has the Hall of Fame Game between the Denver Broncos and Detroit Lions tomorrow at 12:30 p.m., and NBC (Channel 2) is in England for the American Bowl between the Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles Sunday at 1 p.m. HTS has the San Francisco 49ers-Los Angeles Raiders tomorrow at 4 p.m. . . . The Big 33 game has drawn some impressive alumni as announcers. NFL and network veterans Jimmy Cefalo and Joe Namath will call the all-star football game, carried here by Channel 11 tomorrow at 7 p.m.

Hubie Brown will be TNT's basketball analyst during its coverage the Pan American Games from Cuba. Maybe Brown can get an interview with Fidel Castro. Can you see it?

"OK, you're leader of an island country that increasingly stands alone as a Communist nation. You have a crumbling infrastructure and an uncertain future. You have two full timeouts and a 25-second timeout left and you get the ball at half-court. What do you do?"

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