It is now common for Americans to watch events on high-definition televisions big enough to warrant their own zip codes, but for networks and sports leagues, the future may lie with the screen of a 17-inch laptop.
The streaming of sports live through the Internet has become big business, and several companies and leagues have unveiled ambitious new efforts to reach more fans not just in their living rooms but on their computers.
ESPN last week revealed that it will revamp its ESPN360 broadband service, placing a new emphasis on streaming live events, including broadcasts of college football and basketball, the NBA and auto racing. The network said it will show 2,000 live events in the next 12 months, up from 200 last year.
NBC also announced last week it will stream 2,200 hours of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing live on its Web site, and DirecTV, the nation's leading satellite television provider, announced it will stream live football games over the Internet as part of its package of out-of-market games.
The new plans appear to signify a growing comfort with the quality of online video. While streams of video were once grainy, small and easily interrupted, providers now contend the quality of their broadcasts are comparable to normal television. Moreover, they said an increasing number of fans have the quick Internet connections necessary to access live video.
"We want to give sports fans a little bit of everything," said Jeff Cravens, the new vice president and general manager of ESPN360, which is available to 15.5 million high-speed Internet subscribers. "There's been a continuous improvement of broadband quality, and by focusing on live events, we feel that's what grows demand for the usage of the product."
The number of people watching sports online is likely to increase, proponents said, because of an explosion of online video sites, such as YouTube. Comscore, a Reston-based company that tracks Internet usage, said three out of every four Internet users stream some sort of video each month. There were 8.3 billion video streams downloaded in May alone, the company reported.
Perhaps no one is more intimately aware of the power of online video than Major League Baseball, which streams all of its games live through its MLB.TV service. For $79, fans can watch every game not available in their home market, and its latest offering, known as Mosaic, allows fans to watch up to six games at one time.
MLB.TV is the flagship product for MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM), which operates the Web sites for all Major League Baseball teams and produces a host of other online content, including live talk shows, podcasts and fantasy games. MLBAM also has joint ventures with several other sports groups, producing live broadcasts for the AVP beach volleyball tour and the World Championship Sports Network. MLBAM likely will stream more than 10,000 events this year, and its revenues this year are expected to top $400 million, up at least one-third from 2006.
"The quality of our video is very, very good," MLBAM CEO Bob Bowman said. "If you were to look at a video from 2002 and compare it to now, it's as different as black and white and color TV."
MLBAM is working with Swarmcast, a Minneapolis-based company that has developed a way for live video to be streamed from several different sources, thus making the feed more reliable.
"Until recently, we were at the point where people had been focusing on their business models, but there was a real reluctance to promote their product because of [video] quality issues," Swarmcast CEO Justin Chapweske said. "We're focused on turning the Internet into a truly viable alternative to cable and satellite television."
But proponents of live video aren't in denial: They know that at this point use of a high-definition television is the preferred way to watch sports. And that's why most of the events streamed online are events that otherwise would be unavailable on traditional television. ESPN360's offerings, for instance, include sports like arena football, college baseball, rugby and early round matches from major tennis tournaments, which often aren't available on ESPN or ESPN2. The service also has provided space for hundreds of college basketball and football games that ESPN's networks simply don't have room for.
For sports leagues, offering live sports online isn't ideal, but it's better than nothing.
"When it comes to broadcast network exposure, we are definitely second-class citizens," said Leonard Armato, chief executive officer of the AVP. "But we are looking to grow, and I think the way we do it is through our video offerings."
Service providers and leagues are also looking to make streaming video more interactive. Next month, MLBAM plans to adopt Microsoft's new Silverlight media player, which is designed to make the game broadcasts more customizable for fans. The size of the screen can be expanded or shrunk down easily, for instance, and fans will be able to view updated statistics or even highlights from other games.
ESPN, meanwhile, is also focused on using ESPN360 to provide complementary coverage of events shown on its networks. That strategy was on display in June when ESPN360 provided a live broadcast following Tiger Woods during an entire round of golf's U.S. Open.
In the end, the adoption of the Internet as a way to access live sports may come down to expectations.
"People increasingly expect to see an [event] online and see it live," Bowman said. "It increasingly will matter less and less whether people see it on a big screen TV [rather] than a laptop."