- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

Live sports on the Internet. That simple sentence heretofore has been much more fantasy than reality. Plenty of live game audio currently is available for every major sport. So, too, are real-time scores and statistics.
But video is a far different story, with cost and technological issues, concerns about audience size and a pervasive fear of cannibalizing TV broadcasters all contributing to chill the market.
Until now, that is. Major League Baseball, itself a major online player for two years, last week announced plans to create MLB.TV. The online subscription service will function as the Internet equivalent of its "Extra Innings" TV package, streaming nearly 1,000 out-of-market games live this season.
The service, which will cost $79.95 for the season or $14.95 a month, is a bold step for baseball. It also marks the first significant commitment of its type by any major league after several dabbles in this direction by MLB and the NBA. Helping make MLB.TV happen was Real Networks, a Seattle-based company best known for its Real Player software.
Though baseball fans can buy the MLB.TV service independently, Real Networks is also folding it into its variety of broader programming subscriptions. And those offerings (combined with Real Networks' existing relationships with baseball, the NBA, NFL, PGA Tour and NASCAR) aim to turn the company into a sort of cyber-equivalent of a cable sports network.
The company also offers a wide variety of news and entertainment programming. But much like Fox, HBO and several other successful TV ventures, Real Networks is using sports as the true trailblazer to reach the masses.
"Baseball has doubled down on our technology and is making its crown jewel programming available," said Scott Ehrlich, vice president of media acquisition and distribution for Real Networks. "That is no less than a watershed event. Nobody in the history of the Internet has delivered this much [live] video.
"As we continue to show we can generate significant revenue for leagues, we have every reason to believe that more leagues will make more and better programming available and create additional elements for us," Ehrlich said.
Not all of Real Networks' sports programming relies strictly on live video. The company's new Tour Cast technology gives advanced graphical representations of shots from PGA Tour events in real time, and allows for nearly unlimited options to customize data for specific players or holes.
NASCAR programming, now in its second year on Real Networks, combines typical race summaries and graphics depicting driver location and speed on the track with live audio of drivers talking with their pit crews. Both elements were aided in part by SportVision, the company behind the much-loved yellow 1st and Ten line in football.
Real Networks also holds contracts with the NBA, Professional Bowling Association, nearly five dozen major colleges and the NFL, airing a mix of live game action and highlight reels.
All of this, however, begs the serious question of how many people will really watch sports on the Internet, both a year and a decade from now. Real Networks executives claim nearly 1million total subscribers for all its online programming subscriptions, a strong number for the Internet but fairly modest for nearly any TV consideration. A rival service from Yahoo Inc., centered on live feeds of NASCAR races and the upcoming NCAA men's basketball tournament, is just starting.
And no matter how good the video and sound quality, and the speed of transmission, the end result is still a much smaller and less crisp picture than on most television sets.
"Internet broadcasting may give a nice, modest incremental bump [in revenue], but it certainly won't rival TV for a long, long time," said Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner. Cuban, also chairman of HDNet, is betting part of his fortune reaped from Internet radio broadcasting on the rollout of high-definition TV.
Ehrlich also concedes the challenge of selling the public on webcasting.
"This basic idea of selling a subscription to online, streamed video content, you have to remember, didn't exist three years ago," Ehrlich said.
Still, Real Networks is relying on several key elements. Its products are typically designed to serve fans on the go some subscriptions are specifically designed for wireless phones and geographically displaced from their favorite teams. Such fans essentially are beyond the reach of their regional sports network.
Other offerings, such as Tour Cast, simply do not exist in any other context or are designed to be used by fans watching TV and the Internet at the same time. The majority of avid sports fans owning a computer have it in the same room as a television.
Furthermore, the company is operating on a strict mantra of not assuming a confrontational stance with major sports leagues. Real Networks and MLB executives are using geographic locator technology from a third company, Quova, to ensure fans do not get their home team's games via MLB.TV instead of regular TV.
"What we're doing [with MLB.TV] presents an enormous opportunity, particularly for our displaced fans," said MLB president Bob DuPuy. "When VCRs first came out, everybody worried about Hollywood withering away. Obviously, the inverse happened. The same thing, I think, can apply here. But we and Real are still being very careful to protect our broadcast partners."

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