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Big screens, open wallets

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On a recent trip with friends to the ESPN Zone to celebrate his 30th birthday in downtown Baltimore, Billy Estes could barely contain his excitement.

First, he turned his head left and then right. Then, he turned his entire body around to look behind his booth. He was delightfully surrounded -- by football, basketball, skiing and every other sport a guy could possibly hope for -- on 66 televisions: 56 brand-spanking-new 42-inch and four 50-inch plasma TVs, and six 19-inch LCD TVs.

"I am absolutely in awe," says Estes, a Delaware restaurant manager. "I don't know which way to look. You can see the lines in the floor of that basketball game. You can see the dirt that football player kicks up on the field as he's running. It's clearer than real life. It's like you're there, a part of it. I really want one. There would be some serious bonding going on between me and a TV like that."

With last week's Super Bowl -- and the start of the Winter Olympics this weekend and the coming of March Madness -- plus a significant drop in prices on big screen, high definition TVs, it's the time of year again when a boy's fancy turns to two of his greatest loves: sports and high-tech gadgets.

The love affair began slowly, but picked up steam as the televisions began to pop up everywhere. First, it was just the electronics stores and TV commercials where they still seemed slightly out of reach. Then home-furnishing catalogs from Pottery Barn and IKEA began spotlighting the TVs in cozy models of perfect living. Soon, neighborhood bars like Butts and Betty's Tavern near Fells Point and Porters Pub and Grill in Federal Hill started sporting new flat panels, making the envy grow deeper. When Wal-Mart and on-line retailers began offering more affordable sets, it finally seemed more than just a possible dream.

It seemed like destiny.

Perhaps such long simmering desire contributes to why this is the best time of year for TV sales, according to a survey by BIGresearch for the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, which found that the Super Bowl was just the push that was needed to mesmerize many people into upgrading their home entertainment systems. That same survey shows that consumers expect to purchase 1.7 million new televisions this year, compared to 1.4 million last year.

The drop in prices for such sets has also fueled the frenzy. More than a year ago, a 42-inch plasma screen cost at least $4,500. These days, with growing competition, buyers can snag a 42-inch for as little as $1,500.

It doesn't hurt, also, that more stations, such as Home Box Office and ESPN, are offering programming in high definition nowadays, which provides a stunningly crisp picture.

"This is a really big time for us," says Mark Corrado, an assistant manager at Tweeter in Glen Burnie. "Watching sports on it is like looking out a window, it's so clear."

A.J. Battaglia, a supervisor at the Best Buy in Baltimore, says the fascination with high-definition, wide-screen cuts across gender and age groups, but the majority found hypnotized in front of the screens are generally men.

Grown men (and a few women) walk into an electronics store and immediately gravitate toward row after row of large TVs, staring slack-jawed at ridiculously brilliant and clear pictures. Most will then engage in the TV sway, standing between two sets and then lean their torso side-to-side examining the screens for differences in color, clarity and overall splendor. The true converts will then speak reverently to each other about the ability to see blades of grass on a football field.

It was love at first sight for Mike Bell, a 43-year-old merchant marine from Alaska who had his heart set on a 32-inch Westinghouse LCD television for $1099.99.

"It's the size and the thinness that gets me," says Bell, who was debating on whether he should buy the set now and ship it back to Alaska or wait. "I could get rid of the big entertainment center in my home."

Jake Chilson, 46, a Beltsville computer analyst, doesn't have a flat screen, flat panel TV at home, but says seeing the ESPN Zone after its recent TV upgrade was "a dream come true for a guy."

"With a TV like that, you gotta have bragging rights," Chilson says. "They're just really impressive. And hey, if you're not impressing your friends with it, you can still impress yourself."

Crazy to fall in love with an inanimate object? Crazy to drop a couple grand on a TV? Sure.

"It's crazy," says Ronald Silver, a 52-year-old federal government worker who was helping a friend choose between a 32-inch and 40-inch Samsung LCD. "But all men want their toys and that's one beautiful toy."

dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

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