Wednesday, May 04, 2011

To Be There ... Or Not Be There

"You had to be there!"

How many times have we gone to a sporting event and said that later to a friend who wasn't at the game? But the actual live experience has lost something in recent years. For one thing, it's crazy expensive to go to a game these days, and in a bad economy the average fan simply can't often afford it.

More importantly, television (and the web) have now developed to the point where it's actually much better to stay home and watch the game. High definition, multiple angles, and now (in a limited fashion) 3D sports, are making the mediated experience better than the game experience.

Take last night's no-hitter thrown by Francisco Liriano of the Twins, who beat the White Sox, 1-0. MLB Network cut live to the game in the bottom of the 9th, so fans all across the country could see the dramatic ending. Not only did they see the no-hitter, they also saw less than 21,000 fans shivering in the Chicago cold as temperatures hovered in the mid-30s. In Detroit, the players' breath was clearly visible on a similarly cold night. Which experience was better ... watching it live in the freezing cold or seeing the same thing in the comfort of your home? (FYI, I was at old Comiskey Park to see Jack Morris' no-hitter in 1984, and almost froze to death).

Writing on baseball's attendance problems this season, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated frames the issue: "How do you keep the in-person experience special in the face of connectivity options that were intended to be complementary but grow to become competition? If DVRs and large, high-def flat screens and whiz-bang camerawork made the couch more attractive than 50-yard line seats, what more erosion will come from 3D TV refinement and other advancements?"

That's what every sport now faces, especially in an era of inflated attendance costs. "We aren't just going to invest on new technologies that serve people at home," says Brian Rolapp, the NFL's Vice President for Digital Media. "We will continue to invest to make the stadium experience better."

But as the mediated experience becomes better and better, making the stadium experience better will become even harder to do. These days, "You had to be there to see it!" is often replaced with, "I caught it on YouTube!"


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