- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006

Apple Computer Inc.’s IPod was once just a humble portable music player, a device used mostly by tech-savvy young professionals to play their collections of smooth jazz, speed metal or acid rock.

But in the past year, the seemingly ubiquitous pocket device (50 million sold and counting) has become big business in the sports world, as athletes, fans and broadcast outlets have found new uses for it.

The Colorado Rockies’ baseball team is using IPods to analyze their swings and pitching mechanics. Nike is building a shoe that will use an IPod to track a runner’s progress. And millions of hours of games, highlights and sports news can be downloaded onto an IPod, so fans can take their sports with them wherever they go.

“You go to the gym, and you’re going to see many IPods,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Jupiter Research in New York. “To some degree, it’s become a kind of sports lifestyle product.”

Indeed, IPods practically have become a piece of gym equipment. But these days, athletes are using them as more than just a soundtrack for workouts.

The Rockies began using video IPods after this year’s spring training, when a team video coordinator realized that players could review clips of their swings and opposing pitchers more easily than on their laptop computers.

“We’re always looking for ways for our players and staff to more easily access video,” said Mike Hamilton, the Rockies’ coordinator of video coaching. “We had a couple players who already had the video IPods in spring training, and I think they bought them thinking it would just hold more music or a video clip or something like that. Now most of the guys who have gone out and got them bought them exclusively for baseball. That’s all they have on it.”

Now more than a dozen Rockies use a video IPod, including perennial all-star Todd Helton, who can view five seasons of his best swings on the 21/2-inch screen. The Florida Marlins also have started using the technology.

“It’s a neat gadget,” Helton said. “You get to look at all your at-bats and the upcoming pitchers. And you can keep it right in your locker, and it doesn’t bother anybody. I’m a video guy … I can look back on certain periods when I was feeling good to see what I looked like.”

Soon, IPods will be used to help the recreational athlete as well.

Last month, Apple announced a partnership with Nike to create a special running shoe that allows the smaller IPod Nano to record information such as time, distance and pace, while pumping audio feedback into runners’ ears. The shoe includes a pocket for a small sensor, which communicates with an IPod strapped to a runner’s arm. The IPod saves the information, which can be uploaded to a Web site, where it is compared with previous performances or performances from other runners.

“IPod has proven itself to be a great workout companion, and now we’re working with Nike to take music and sport to a whole new level,” said Greg Joswiak, Apple’s vice president of worldwide IPod product marketing. “The Nike IPod Sport Kit is the first result of the partnership and will greatly improve the way people use their IPod for running.”

Not that any of this technology comes cheaply. A video IPod costs at least $299, with a smaller IPod Nano starting at $149. The Nike shoes cost upward of $100, and the connectivity kit costs $30.

But even couch potatoes are finding IPods can enhance their ability to follow the sports they love.

Earlier this year, sports leagues and broadcasters began selling highlight reels and condensed versions of games on Apple’s ITunes service, which allows users to download video onto their IPods.

The offerings include NBA games, NASCAR Nextel Cup highlights and recaps, NHL Stanley Cup Finals highlights and a host of college sports content through CBS Sports and College Sports Television.

Meanwhile, ABC Sports and ESPN have offered episodes of their original shows, plus condensed and full replays of Bowl Championship Series college football games. This year’s national championship game between Texas and Southern California — the first sporting event offered on ITunes — remains one of the most downloaded events in the history of the ITunes service.

“Certainly, the reception to our content has really been strong,” said Tanya VanCourt, vice president and general manager of ESPN’s broadband division. “We just think it’s very important to be everywhere where there are sports fans.”

Sports fans in the past year have discovered special audio and video programs known as “podcasts,” which resemble short talk-radio shows. Although many podcasts are produced independently by fans, Major League Baseball has sold millions of its own podcasts through ITunes and its Web site, MLB.com. This week, it will begin offering a video podcast of “MLB.com Midday,” an online talk show. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds have started producing their own podcasts.

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