Column: Fans who are game will shape the future of their TV and digital sports


By Phil Rosenthal - Chicago Tribune



Not to sound like an online quiz, but people’s feelings about increased use of “sky-cam” on football telecasts likely tell whether they primarily associate the name “Madden” with NFL coaching, announcing or video games.

The elevated shot behind the offense from a camera moving above the field has been used sparingly in TV coverage until recently, but it’s a familiar perspective for any gamer.

NBC has experimented this season with increased reliance on this shot, rather than traditional sideline views, during its Thursday prime-time NFL Network simulcasts, offering a different way to see plays develop and defenses respond. As video games have become a way for some fans to engage with and grow more attached to the sport, this familiar view makes sense.

Those who find it disorienting and fear they’ve been consigned to end-zone seats after a lifetime between the 20-yard lines can relax because this is just one of many ongoing experiments in how best to present sports going forward.

The future of TV and digital sports is literally in the hands of the fans game enough to play with it. Viewers likely will be able to see what they want the way they want it.

Think of future TV sports as a restaurant where one can either order a prepared meal or choose the ingredients and how it is to be presented.

Save for the advent of a few innovations — such as high-definition video, the ability to use very small cameras, projecting first-down markers, constant on-screen score boxes and enhanced slow motion — sports coverage on TV has changed relatively little over recent decades.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at Recode’s Code Commerce conference earlier this year that “when you look at games now, it’s like a silent movie” compared with what’s possible.

ESPN and TBS lately have tried offering multiple feeds of college sports championship games, putting hometown announcers and coaches across multiple cable channels.

Sports leagues have encouraged Amazon and others carrying sports online to make full use of their technology to do more than replicate TV coverage.

Fox Sports 1 plans to experiment next month when DePaul hosts Providence in men’s basketball, presenting the game with limited commercial interruption and putting microphones on the two head coaches to eavesdrop on the sideline and in the locker room.

There will be secondary Providence-DePaul streams available on FoxSportsGo.com and the Fox Sports Go app during the Jan. 12 telecast, dedicated to live video and audio of each coach from tipoff to the final whistle. Part of the goal is to see what interest there is in this sort of thing as well as to dress up an ordinary Big East telecast.

Silver, whose developmental Gatorade League this month launched a partnership to stream games on Twitch.tv, Amazon’s gamer community and video site, suggested earlier this year that NBA coverage someday may come to resemble that platform’s content.

Someday is not next year “but three, four, five years from now, it’s going to start looking very different,” Silver said.

Twitch reports 15 million daily active users watching and commenting on video-game play, even posting their own games. Its G-League coverage offers live video streams with different commentators who can interact with viewers.

“It’s sort of constant chatter of fans,” Silver said. “There’s all kinds of other information appearing on the screen.”

To older consumers used to looking at sports, it might look incredibly cluttered. But as Facebook and other services experiment with live sports rights, they don’t have the same limitations cable and satellite historically have had.

Many fans may find it easier to sit back and let the games come at them as they always have, with a director and producer calling the shots. But those who want to get (or avoid) the sky-cam angle conceivably could choose that.

Want a low-angle or elevated sideline shot? A close-up on a certain player or coach? Any or all could be a click away.

It’s the same if one wants bigger or smaller graphics. Interested in one stat in particular or no graphics at all? What about announcers?

“Think about it — you can have unlimited audio feeds,” Silver said. “You may not want to listen to the same standard play-by-play you always get. Instead it could be your friend doing play-by-play. It could be a comedian doing play-by-play. It could be a celebrity doing play-by-play sitting courtside.

“You could be getting all kinds of information about those players, (including) where they’re from, biometrics. … It may be fascinating … to measure stress on players when they’re going to the line, (have) unlimited information. Then there’s daily fantasy, moving likely toward legalized gaming or gambling and sports betting in this country. There’s going to be all these new fields of information.”

It’s not clear how this would affect the cost of producing sports and whether increased engagement will make it cost-effective.

But a sure sign digital streaming is likely to become more common came Thursday.

With media company bids for the NFL’s controversial package of Thursday night games due in early January, Sports Business Daily reported the league’s request for proposals “offers the possibility that a digital company could buy the entire package, which has never happened with the NFL before.”

Twitter or Amazon could produce a telecast for TV stations in the participating teams’ home markets to buy and air but otherwise present the games online as it sees fit with whatever bells and whistles it can muster.

After all, according to Silver, it’s not a lack of creativity holding TV sports back.

“It’s the limitation of technology of the cable box,” he said.

And no matter from where or what angle one looks at it, that dam seems likely to give way — soon.

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By Phil Rosenthal

Chicago Tribune

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