We are creatures of comfort when it comes to watching sport on TV

While attendance figures for most US sports leagues decline, television ratings continue to soar.
Big screen televisions have broadened  fans’ viewing pleasure, with more angles and that staple of home viewing: instant replays.
Big screen televisions have broadened fans’ viewing pleasure, with more angles and that staple of home viewing: instant replays.

Spectator sports in America have a problem. In a way, it is a welcome problem because it illustrates a growing popularity. It is a problem with partial solutions, though, that will require ingenuity and expense.

Let us go back a decade or so ago, when our dictionaries and conversations included no mention of terms such as bandwidth, high-definition, flat-screen, pixel, Wi-Fi and plasma (unless, with the last example, the topic was blood types).

Since then, our lives have been shaken and stirred by technological breakthroughs, the likes of which were unimaginable in the dark ages at the turn of the century.

Few have benefited more than sports fans. We pinched enough pennies (or incurred enough credit card debt) to purchase expensive televisions with screens that displayed astonishingly vivid pictures. Our imagination no longer had to be stretched far to transport us from our couch to a close-up seat at the event.

The price tag four years ago on my high-definition television, with its totally awesome 46-inch screen, was US$1,800 (Dh6,600), more than I once spent on two cars and a wedding ring. (OK, the vehicles were dinged up, and the ring wholesale. But still.)

Best purchase I ever made. The enhanced viewing has chained me to my easy chair. With the added dimension, I feel more connected to the game, race or match. After years of futilely trying to trace the nearly invisible hockey puck, I could actually follow the little bugger.

A couple of paces away, on my work desk, is a computer that I tap on during commercials to check scores, pore over athlete bios or peruse chatter.

A few more steps, and I am digging into the refrigerator for a snack and a beverage that cost a fraction of what I would pay at the arena.

I could kick back during the NBA play-offs and absorb the famously effective triangle offence of the Los Angeles Lakers with my own useful triangle set-up: super-sized TV, laptop with high-speed internet and stuffed fridge.

Gradually, it dawned on me that drinking in sports from the comforts of home was an acceptable alternative to schlepping to the stadium. Then, it became more than that.

While attendance figures for many US sports leagues are flat, TV ratings are ascendant, even for the National Football League, which has always been through the roof.

Last season's games drew an average of 17.9 million viewers, the most eyeballs since 1989. Of the 30 most-watched TV shows across the dial last year, 28 were professional football. (Congrats, Dancing With The Stars, for breaking up the monopoly.)

The National Baketball Association, capitalising on a (Miami) Heat wave, has followed a smashing regular season with double-digit increases for the play-offs. Even the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup, historically a ratings deadbeat, has widened its audience.

Another sign of TV's grip on sports: networks are agreeing to pay dizzying rights fees despite an unhealthy business climate in the US. Several college conferences have hit the jackpot on deals for airing their games. The pros are cashing in, too.

Still, leagues don't want their games to become studio events, with cameras outnumbering ticket-buyers on site. So they are scrambling to match the living-room experience.

At least four Major League Baseball teams have rolled out Wi-Fi at their parks. Franchises across the sports spectrum are providing special applications for mobile devices to consult team pages and order concessions.

An arms race has begun with large high-definition video stadium screens for beaming the action, including that cherished staple of home viewing: instant replays.

The clubhouse leader was the Dallas Cowboys, with a monstrosity measuring 11,520 square feet (1,070 square metres), until the Charlotte Motor Speedway recently topped it at 16,000.

All well and good, but do not count on seeing any controversial replays from Section D, Row 7, Seat 5. For the full viewing experience, there is nothing like home.

As much as technology supplements our sports-watching, we probably are in the dawn of development. The latest blessing: 3D television. Once sports figures out how to convey their product through 3D, we may become hermits.

Thumbing through an advert for holiday-weekend sales at an electronics store, I stopped at an offer for a high-definition TV with a 50-inch screen, four inches larger than the one that cost me nearly $2,000.

The price: $499.

No, spectator sports are not going away. But our enjoyment of them is increasingly fulfilled less with a ticket in our hand than with a remote control.


Published: June 1, 2011 04:00 AM


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