SBJ/20091108/Technology in Sports

Mobile: Additional Elements

TV in your pocket

Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, the Sony Watchman forged a major marketplace niche: a portable television that showed over-the-air TV stations. The video quality on the device was often poor, given its dependence on available and nearby broadcast signals, and it initially came in only black and white. But it was fully portable, and sports fans wanting to watch live games formed a key part of the Watchman’s customer base.

FLO TV, already a significant player in the mobile television landscape via its work over cellular phones, is recalling those Watchman days with its forthcoming release of FLO TV Personal Television. The new mobile TV is roughly the size and weight of an iPod Classic but boasts dozens of TV stations in full digital color and quality. Featuring a 3.5-inch screen and more than five hours of battery life, the device aims to advance upon its existing mobile TV service through wireless carriers such as Verizon and AT&T.

FLO TV’s Personal Television (left) is heir to
the Sony Watchman of the 1980s and early ‘90s.

The device, to cost $249.99, will be available by the end of the year, and monthly programming charges will begin at $8.99 per month. Perhaps most critically, FLO TV will not rely on often-overburdened cellular networks. Instead, video will arrive via FLO TV’s own dedicated portion of broadcast spectrum. And like its predecessors, FLO TV will target sports fans as a key consumer market for the new device.

Full programming lineups, however, have not yet been announced, though NBC has confirmed it will be involved. The key question facing FLO TV is whether that programming, when announced, will be compelling enough for consumers to both pay for the device itself and commit to yet another media subscription fee.

“This is something you wouldn’t feel uncomfortable handing to someone else, unlike most people with their phones, and will have a better battery life,” said Michael Hirsch, director of product development for FLO TV, a subsidiary of Qualcomm Inc. “We definitely see live programming, certainly sports, as a fundamental part of this device.”

— Eric Fisher

Sling time
Top: Sling Media co-founder
Jason Krikorian. Slingbox
(middle) shifts video to
computers; the SlingPlayer
Mobile app works with iPhone
(bottom) and others.

The initial version of the Slingbox, as many tech enthusiasts know, started as a fulfillment of a sports fan wish. Sling Media founders Jason and Blake Krikorian wanted to devise a way to easily watch San Francisco Giants games when they traveled.

That relatively simple desire spawned a phenomenon that featured robust sales of the brand’s TV place-shifting set-top box, dust-ups with several intellectual property owners, introduction of the Clip+Sling video-sharing service, and a high-profile, $380 million corporate merger with EchoStar Corp.

The Krikorians are now gone from Sling Media, leaving after the EchoStar transition was complete. But the company, despite heightened competition from rival outfits, still is actively developing mobile versions of the place-shifting service, furthering an effort started in 2006.

In January, Sling Media released a BlackBerry app to power a version of the SlingPlayer Mobile for the Research In Motion devices. Four months later, the company followed that with perhaps its most anticipated mobile product: a $29.99 iPhone app that similarly allows users to watch their home TV signals on their iPhones. The service, which uses the device’s wireless Internet connection as opposed to the carrier’s 3G network, has since been expanded into Europe as well.

Versions of the SlingPlayer Mobile for Android and latest Palm devices are also expected in the coming weeks and months. The forthcoming releases join companion efforts to develop browser-based use of the Slingbox online, as opposed to using a Sling application, as well as a “Slingloaded” DVR through sister company Dish Network.

— Eric Fisher

Purchasing power

The learning curve for buying goods and services over a phone has been similar to, if not even more daunting than, what customers faced in the 1990s with e-commerce.

Good mobile sites
aren’t copies of Web
sites, but optimized
for mobile ordering.

Will the purchasing work? Can I easily navigate through a sequence of several purchasing screens over a phone? Are the transaction and my credit card secure?

All highly relevant questions, and ones that are now being answered “Yes” with enough reliability to fuel a sharp rise in mobile-based buying activity.

ABI Research, a New York-based group that tracks the technology industry, estimates that mobile purchasing of physical goods in North America will easily surpass $1 billion in 2010, up from $346 million in 2008. Virtual goods and digital-based products, such as audio and video content subscriptions, are poised for similar meteoric growth.

Brands like Domino’s and
Pizza Hut have paved the
way for mobile ordering.

The surging numbers are being fueled in large part by the ongoing rise in smart-phone technology and the active development of mobile sites that are reworked from their online counterparts to be optimized for the wireless experience. Also important is the trailblazing of major consumer brands such as Amazon and eBay; national pizza chains like Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Papa John’s; as well as dozens of national and regional banks that have fostered greater consumer comfort with purchasing and moving money around via a mobile device.

For sports teams, ticketing stands as likely the greatest opportunity in the emerging realm of mobile commerce. Many sports rely on ticketing as their largest, or one of their largest, individual sources of revenue, and the potential dollars in this area far surpass anything obtainable via sales of licensed merchandise or digital content.

Fans for several years have been able to obtain ticket bar codes via mobile devices to gain access to a stadium or arena. It’s only been in the last 24 months, though, that ticketing firms such as Ticketmaster and Tickets.com have been able to create a mobile ticketing solution that handles every step of the purchasing process. Tickets.com recently tested its ProVenueMobile offering in Oakland and will use it for all of its MLB clients in 2010.

“We’re convinced that mobile ticketing is going to be a big part of the industry going forward,” said Brett Michalak, Tickets.com chief information officer.

— Eric Fisher

Mobile metrics

Online metrics were originally seen as a panacea to the oft-criticized world of TV ratings, a means by which advertisers and programmers alike could really see where consumer patterns were trending and could spend accordingly. The supposedly more-measurable medium has since fallen into disarray, though, as no definitive industry standard exists in either how to count user activity on wired computers or which type of measures of consumer activity matter most.

Wireless activity similarly is fraught with tension in this area, as the level of advertising that programmers can reasonably place within a mobile setting is less than other mediums. As a result, traditional measures such as pricing ad inventory on a cost per thousand (CPM) basis or click-through rates are less applicable in mobile. The growing preponderance of paid mobile application downloads and newer forms of integrated advertising beyond just display ads also greatly alters the definition of success in the wireless world.

But because mobile is still in its relative infancy, even compared with the online world, there is still some hope for a more standardized and transparent audience measurement system for mobile. A growing group of outfits — including the Mobile Marketing Association, GSM Association, and research hubs comScore and Nielsen Online — are actively exploring newer elements such as poring more deeply into measuring forms of mobile engagement like data usage and browsing behavior.

“The future of measuring display ad effectiveness has to be by considering view-thru, incorporating consumer behavior over time rather than just clicks,” said Mike Shaw, comScore director of marketing solutions.

— Eric Fisher

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