SBJ/Jan. 17-23, 2011/Media

Inside three key categories for sports at CES

The crowds were definitely heavier at this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show, held earlier this month in Las Vegas, with early attendance estimates of more than 140,000 rising well above last year’s mark of 126,641. Stars, as usual, were everywhere on site, ranging from A-list Hollywood actors and Pro Basketball Hall of Famers to rap stars. And breathless hype, perhaps the chief annual export of CES, was once again in full supply.

But beneath the glitz and gloating were developments in three key areas that could render significant impact on the sports media, technology and fan interaction landscapes. Here’s a more detailed look at each of those areas of development:

• 3-D TV
What was new: 3-D TVs for the home made their high-profile debut at CES a year ago, but sales for 2010 generally failed to meet targets. Rather than back down, manufacturers roared back even harder this year. 3-D TV sets soon will be available in a much wider array of sizes and price points. 3-D TV glasses are getting lighter and less expensive, and they’re being designed in styles more akin to ordinary sunglasses. In addition, 3-D TVs are increasingly being supported by a wide range of other 3-D-enabled products, such as camcorders, video game systems and Blu-ray players, creating a fuller ecosystem around the technology.
3D glasses
CES attendees try out Panasonic's active shutter 3-D glasses. The glasses that are required for 3-D TV viewing are becoming lighter and less expensive.

Why it could be a big deal: 3-D TV may never be a mainstream rage, but it’s not going away. According to some estimates, the adoption curve for 3-D TV is well ahead of the comparable curves for DVDs, Blu-ray and other major consumer electronics formats. Samsung is projecting a sixfold increase in the number of 3-D TVs it will sell this year compared with last year. Panasonic, among others, is pushing for a common industry standard for active-shutter glasses, a move that would greatly aid group-viewing events such as what often occurs within sports and could jump-start sales.

Why it might not be a big deal: Regardless of how light, cheap and disposable 3-D TV glasses may get, they remain a significant obstacle for many consumers and a definite impediment to the multitasking that is now commonplace among all forms of TV consumption. Nearly all of the major TV manufacturers at CES demonstrated some form of glasses-less 3-D, though without any projection for commercial availability. For now, experiencing the 3-D TV effect without glasses requires not moving from a specific spot. In most instances, that experience is definitely not as robust.

What to expect: More live games in 3-D, more experimentation and definitely more marketing from all involved stakeholders. ESPN at CES announced plans to shift its ESPN 3-D channel to 24 hours-a-day programming, beginning next month. The network next month also for the first time will conduct a hybrid production from a “Friday Night Fights” event in Maryland in which a standard 2-D feed will be extracted out of a 3-D game production. To date, all live sports 3-D productions have been wholly separate affairs from their 2-D counterparts. “We’re already far ahead in terms of distribution and programming of 3-D from where we were at a similar point in the development of HD,” said Bryan Burns, ESPN vice president of strategic business planning, and a key figure in the network’s 3-D efforts. “In retrospect, we might have been a little early out of the gate [with 3-D], but we definitely want to have the first-mover advantage.”

What was new: Similar to 3-D TVs, connected TVs have been several years in development, but they hit a major acceleration point at CES this year. Inspired heavily by the ubiquitous “app” world of mobile, a wide range of TVs will now come specifically enabled to access an array of digital content from the Internet as well as tie directly into social networking portals such as Facebook. Cable and satellite distributors, including Comcast and Time Warner, are taking a direct part in the connected TV rush, as well.

Why it could be a big deal: The idea is to make the TV the foundation of an overall connected home and restore the set as the dominant consumer electronic appliance. The on-screen social networking and real-time chat capabilities create a virtual version of the classic watercooler conversation. The connected TV push also furthers the concept that consumers will be able to watch whatever they want, whenever they want, and with even more freedom than what is provided by digital video recorders. “Smart TV is the place where everything is converging,” said BK Yoon, president of Samsung’s visual display division.

Why it might not be a big deal: The content browsing experience on a connected TV thus far has not been anywhere near as fluid as doing the same on a computer or mobile device. Rights issues, particularly in sports, could be thorny as well, as very few existing deals contemplate this medium. Some content brands are already wary of connected TVs because of the lack of a robust revenue model for TV apps, and the very development of TV apps can be cumbersome, as well. Each manufacturer generally operates from a proprietary platform.

What to expect: A mixed bag. Revenue models, particularly around premium-level content, will continue to evolve. Some leagues and media outlets will push very aggressively in the space while others will hang back for the next year or so to see what develops. The NBA is definitely in the former camp, recently signing pacts with LG, Samsung and Panasonic to bring their total of “smart TV” deals to six. “We are simply being where our fans want us to be, whenever they want,” said Bryan Perez, NBA Digital senior vice president and general manager. “But we are also trying to be as consistent as possible within environments and across platforms.”

What was new:
Inspired in large part by the success last year of Apple’s iPad, more than 100 different tablets were unveiled by various manufacturers at CES. Arguably the most notable entry was Motorola’s Xoom, an effort aided by Verizon Wireless and Google that performs many of the same functions of an iPad but runs on the increasingly popular Android platform and Verizon mobile network.
Motorola tablet
Manufacturers introduced more than 100 tablets at CES, including Motorola's Xoom.

Why it could be a big deal: As early adopters of the iPad have found, there is something particularly immersive about the tablet environment. Sports lends itself particularly well to tablets, with the ability to push statistics, social networking, alternate camera angles and other content in concert with live action on the TV. And the blitz of new devices will provide far more consumer choice than just the iPad.

Why it might not be a big deal: Many of these tablets are not going to get enough content and attention from the third-party developer community to be worth much time or money. What has really made the iPad, and the iPhone before it, work is iTunes and the fertile market of app development. The Android platform is getting to a similar position in a hurry, but anything else is not likely to get much attention from key leagues or sports media outlets.

What to expect: Similar to mobile phones, there will be a massive array of choice among tablets. But also like smartphones, a few tablets will in short order rise above the rest to become the gold standard. “There’s a lot of fragmentation out there,” said Tim Connolly, vice president of mobile distribution for Disney and ESPN Networks Affiliate Sales and Marketing. “We’re going to need to be very methodical about how we approach this space.”

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