SBJ/December 20 - 26, 1999/No Topic Name

Video monitors cater to fans

New York's Madison Square Garden has installed ChoiceSeat video monitors in luxury suites and on the backs of some club seats, becoming the first U.S. arena to offer that technology.

The touch-screen monitors allow a user to view the live action or replays from any camera angle, to call up player statistics and league standings, and even to order a hot dog and pay for it by credit card. Of course, the units also deliver advertising, reaching a prime upper-income-level audience.

ChoiceSeat, the creation of the New York firm CSI Inc., has already been used at two Super Bowls and at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego and Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., on a limited basis. The Madison Square Garden installation is the most ambitious to date: The system is wired into all 88 luxury suites and two sections of club seats, where the video screens rising off the backs of every seat bring the deck of the Starship Enterprise to mind.

By next season, CSI says, all 3,000 seats in the Garden's lowest seating tier will feature the screens.

CSI is marketing the system to all sports venues for $700 to $1,100 a unit for a season. The company also takes a cut of advertising revenue and sells national advertising packages to sponsors.

If all the advertising inventory is snatched up, the system will pay for itself, said Barry Goldberg, executive vice president at CSI.

A quick review of the wired club-seat sections at Madison Square Garden earlier this month found that as a New York Rangers game wore on, few attendees with access to the screens were actually using them. Company officials concede that there is a "learning curve" to using the system, and note that children often take to it faster than adults. But Goldberg predicts than in the near future, every U.S. arena will have a touch video-screen system in its luxury seating area.

"Everyone knows this is inevitable," he said. "The challenge has been, how do you take the concept and make it work?"

That challenge, he said, relates to content more than technology. The programming and hardware for these systems are relatively simple. The hard part is creating an easy-to-use format that truly enhances people's viewing experiences.

"Like most ideas that are on the cutting edge, it's one that needs some tweaking," said Mike Dee, senior vice president for corporate marketing of the San Diego Padres, who tested the system for two years. Although the team did not use it last season, Dee said the Padres may bring it back when they move into a new stadium, scheduled for 2002.

"We're going to be talking with them [CSI] soon, as well as with some other people," said Dee. "Clearly we want to utilize technology along those lines in the new ballpark."

When interactive television becomes the norm in people's homes — a phenomenon that most think will take place during the next 10 years — CSI plans to roll out a similar system for home use. The company is also targeting racetracks, where the video monitors could be used to place bets directly from seats.

Other companies have dabbled in this sort of technology, but CSI says it has an advantage because its majority owner, Williams Communications Group Inc., also owns the Vyvex fiber-optic network used in 85 percent of U.S. stadiums and arenas.

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