(Robert Neubecker / For The…)
On a fall Sunday early last decade, a young reporter living in Berlin wanted to follow a regular-season NFL game being played by his favorite team.
But he had few means to do so. The closest American-themed sports bar was 20 miles away. An online written account would offer only scant details and hardly in real time. Television wasn't an option; the lone European sports network was four hours into a Formula One marathon.
The reporter hit upon a solution: He called a family member in the U.S. and asked him to turn on a radio play-by-play call. Then he asked the family member to put the phone next to the radio and crank up the volume. Three hours, a $40 phone call and one tinny-voiced broadcast later, the reporter's sports itch had been scratched. Sort of.
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A fan circa 2012 doesn't need any Rube Goldberg-esque solutions to get his football fix. He or she lives in what appears to be a sports media utopia — though as a dive into the subject makes clear, it's also a place filled with pitfalls, aggravations and drawbacks. If there's an abundance of choice, is this in some ways also a tyranny?
Today's fan could watch the network television broadcast on TV via his Slingbox, stream the game on his tablet or watch near real-time highlights on his mobile phone, generally for far less than the cost of a pricey international call.
Nor would the game be the only piece of available programming. Hundreds of hours of NFL-related material are at a fan's fingertips — pregame commentary, postgame interviews, in-game analysis, highlight compilations and fantasy updates, all spread across a host of television networks and Web sites.
"Sports fans have an unbelievable appetite for content," said David Berson, executive vice president of CBS Sports and president of the recently relaunched spinoff CBS Sports Network, which is trying to gain traction with a new Jim Rome show. "They can't get enough — before the game, during the game or after the game. The sports world now is a never-ending news cycle."
To broadcast the London Games, which get underway this week, NBC Universal will make use of a half-dozen networks in its empire. It will also show every minute of the 3,500 hours of competition online, shattering the record total of 2,100 hours from the 2008 Beijing Games. "We want London to be the single-biggest event in sports history," said NBC's Jim Bell, executive producer of the Olympics coverage. If somewhere, sometime in middle of the American night, a synchronized swimmer is performing a side fishtail, a camera will be there to capture it.
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(The network is looking to tap into the average daily audience of 27 million that tuned in for the 2008 Beijing Games — and justify its pricey $1.18-billion purchase of TV rights to the Games, though executives have said they do not necessarily expect ratings for London to top Beijing.)
To say there is more sports programming than ever is to say that Kobe Bryant kind of doesn't mind shooting the basketball. Sports is omnipresent on television as well as on-demand and online. Each broadcast network now has at least one cable spinoff. ESPN, the first to recognize an appetite for sports beyond broadcast television, has more than a half-dozen, including the recently relaunched ESPN3, a live-event online streaming channel.
Fox is widely thought to be planning a national sports cable channel to go along with its lucrative regional efforts and specialized networks that focus on soccer, auto racing and extreme sports; the idea would be to compete against longtime juggernaut ESPN. Sports coverage in general is expanding to include not only more sports but less traditional television events, from the NFL draft to skateboarding competitions.
All of the major and some not-so-major pro sports also have also launched their own networks, in the hopes a fan wants to catch yet one more game at the end of the day. So in addition to every conceivable piece of footage and analysis about the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, enthusiasts can tune in to experience 24-7 the joys of auto racing in Japan or men's tennis in Dubai — not to mention niche events such as lacrosse, emerging sports such as mixed martial arts and even high school and low-profile college sports.
But the expansion has significant repercussions. That's true for the media companies, who have paid tens of billions of dollars for the right to broadcast sports — dollars they don't always get back. "This is not a business for the faint of heart," said Eric Shanks, co-president and COO of Fox Sports. "There are a lot of zeros at the end of those checks."
Maybe even more important, it's true for the fan, for whom the implications are vast but not always positive. Is sports at the leading edge of a 21st-century trend of unlimited data and transparency? Or is it burdened under an avalanche?