Week in Geek: Gear up for March Madness!

By Seth Elkin and Jonathan Blum

It used to be that the Olympics were the one place you could count on seeing true innovation in sports television. Roone Arlidge and ABC Sports revolutionized television during those Olympics telecasts in the 1960s and 1970s. This is where the roots of modern football coverage were created. These days, the International Olympic Committee keeps a tight leash on its media rights and production standards. Any number of other major sports events have overtaken the Olympics in terms of broadcast innovation. The one that’s been on our minds this week, of course, is the NCAA Tournament. CBS’s coverage of March Madness and innovation on the Web have thoroughly re-invented the destination sporting event in the digital domain. There’s the March Madness on Demand package on SportsLine.com, DirecTV’s multi-channel tournament package, and now a new offering of highlights for wireless phones from AT&T/Cingular. And just like fantasy sports has become an activity conducted almost exclusively online, the best way to do an NCAA office pool is also on the Web.

Verizon’s MediaFLO-powered mobile TV service, which was announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, has launched. ESPN is firmly on board with this endeavor. The Worldwide Leader didn’t do so well as a cell service provider for myriad reasons. But its stellar Mobile ESPN content is included in a package that Verizon subscribers can get for $15. Clearly it’s a smart move for ESPN, doing a deal with Verizon and giving up the marketing and sales issues to an experienced player in the wireless business. But sports broadcasters should pay attention here to see how well this works. The Verizon-Mediaflo effort is as good as mobile TV is going to get from a technological perspective. Will it be enough to solve the limits of the small screen? We don’t think so. Obviously, every league and every broadcaster is going to want to get into this space. There’s no substitute for being able to connect with viewers wherever they are. But who’s really the target audience for this? Amp’d Mobile recently added NBA TV, which carries live games. But how desperate would you have to be to watch a basketball game on your phone?

While everyone has been focused on the XM-Sirius satellite radio merger, Wal-Mart quietly announced this week that it’s going to start selling HD Radio-capable receivers for cars. We think HD Radio is going to be huge when it catches on, and you don’t get better exposure to the masses than having a product available at Wal-Mart. Remember, there are more than one billion radios in the U.S., and with marketing giants like Wal-Mart on board, it’s only a matter of time before every American has a digital radio in their home and car. It’s going to take some time, but eventually digital radio will transform the media landscape, sports included. Expect more targeted multicasts, covering more local events. There will be marketing opportunities based on positioning information in the car. Satellite radio is just the start. With dozens of channels, there will be a diverse array of sports available. Hey, satellite radio is airing Premier League soccer and the Arena Football League. Anything’s possible.

Sony’s big announcement this week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco was its plan for Home, an online 3D world on the PlayStation 3. We keep waiting for the concept of user-created synthetic worlds to filter into sports. It’s happened on a limited level with Ultimate Baseball Online. Users create a player and control it in live online baseball games. No officially licensed teams. It is very much a virtual reality. The big problem we have with this game is its atrocious control system that uses the keyboard and mouse and doesn’t give you the option to use a gaming controller. But the real story here is the chill that user-created sports worlds should send down the backs of the pro leagues. Self-created sports leagues will flourish in these virtual worlds. There are probably already leagues running in the highly successful Second Life virtual world, but it’s so difficult to get any news about what happens within Second Life that we haven’t heard about any yet. But aided by a tool like the PS3’s Home, it’s only a matter of time before the idea takes off.