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Digital Living Room

Webcasts of Sports Are Not Quite a Slam Dunk

April 19, 2001|JON HEALEY | jon.healey@latimes.com

You've got to wonder about the timing of Mark Cuban's latest suspension by the National Basketball Assn.

The NBA slapped the irrepressible owner of the Dallas Mavericks with a one-game suspension last week, exiling him from the team's game Friday against the Sacramento Kings.

It just so happens that the NBA had already decided to broadcast the Mavericks-Kings game over the Internet--not just the audio, as the league had been doing, but the video as well. So Cuban, who made his fortune by selling Webcaster Broadcast.com to Yahoo for $4.9 billion, couldn't have picked a better time to be locked out of the gym.

Afterward, Cuban pronounced himself pleased with the Webcast--apparently the first of its kind for any major-league sport. But, really, the bar wasn't set very high.

"The goal wasn't to re-create TV but to give [the game to] people around the world, and those stuck at their computers, at work, home, whatever, so they can enjoy the Mavs!" Cuban wrote in an e-mail to The Times.

That, in a nutshell, is the state of video over the Internet today. Although the Net has a worldwide reach and unique interactive capabilities, no rational person would tune in to a Webcast if the same fare were available on TV.

Friday's game made that abundantly clear. Streaming video technology improves by leaps and bounds every year, but nothing shows off the quality shortcomings quite like a screen full of running, jumping athletes.

Working with RealNetworks, the NBA offered two versions of the game: one for viewers with dial-up modems and one for those with high-speed connections to the Net. Low-bandwidth viewers got a postage-stamp-size picture, while power users watched something closer to a postcard.

The video was sharp but not nearly as smooth as Chris Webber's game. That's one of the trade-offs forced by bandwidth limitations on the Net--to put more detail into each frame, the number of frames per second has to be reduced. That made the game hard to watch for more than a few minutes at a time, although a die-hard King or Maverick fan probably wouldn't have complained.

And maybe that's all the NBA wants. The league is sustained in part by the money it collects from TV broadcasters, who won't be so eager to pay if their viewers are being lured away to the Net. By limiting the appeal of Webcasts to hard-core fans who can't get the games on TV, the NBA won't run that risk.

However, the Net has the potential to deliver something broadcast TV isn't prepared to do. Friday's game demonstrated that as well.

In addition to the regular game feed, NBA.com offered video shot through a 360-degree lens from Be Here Corp. The 360-degree stream let viewers turn the camera in any direction, enabling them to scan the crowd or check out on-court action away from the ball.

That kind of personalized control would be far more compelling, however, if the picture quality were higher. Again, that's a function of bandwidth. On Friday the pictures were blotchy at best, and when players ran across the court, the screen filled with digital distortions.

Clearly, Web video is still going through its growing pains, and the NBA has just started to experiment with the technology. But the NBA is in no rush to perfect its approach to video streaming, so don't hold your breath for a repeat of the Mavericks-Kings experience.

NBA.com spokesman Mike Bass said the league might try a similar experiment during this summer's WNBA season, and it plans some unspecified "digital initiative" for its developmental league games in the fall.

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Times staff writer Jon Healey covers digital entertainment.

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