The feature on this week's ibm.com home page is "The Future of Sports," and as I read through drafts of some of the story's components -- including listening to the excellent future of sports podcast - it dawned on me that there may have never been a better time to be an athlete or a sports fan.
Full disclosure: My name is Todd, and I'm a sportsaholic. I grew up in north Texas, near Dallas, where football was as close to a religion as one could get without going to church, and where Little League baseball diamonds were a fixture permanently etched into the landscape. In my adolescence, I played both baseball and football, and also dabbled in soccer, basketball, cross country, golf, and even rodeo (yes, we do consider rodeo to be a sport...same with NASCAR...but more on that later).
I was never a star player, particularly in team sports, but I relished the opportunity and experience of playing both organized team and individual sports, and my participation taught me no end of lessons: teamwork, collaboration, cooperation, sacrifice, perserverance, how to throw my golf putter into a lake with style and finesse but also with the appropriate amount of anger...all qualities that I would inevitably call upon in later years for my business life.
Sporting Solutions for a Small Planet
In my travels for and work experiences on behalf of IBM, I've been most fortunate to have escaped the boundaries of my own geography and culture, and witnessed what sports means around the world, both virtually and up close.
Instant replay: On one of my international business trips, to Munich, I watched in fascination at the complete preoccupation of my European colleagues with the 1998 World Cup, and realized that no matter where in the world you are, football is football...except in Europe, where soccer is football, which my European colleagues were quick to point out...but my real point in mentioning it was this: sport is sport around the globe, certainly even as one man's sport is another man's bore.
I also learned that sport, like politics, is mostly local, even as it plays a crucial and necessary role in shaping national and even state identity...but it's mostly local. My tribe...err, I mean my team, is always better than your team, except when my team loses, in which case it's time to elect a new president...err, I mean hire a new coach.
Yet with the dramatic changes in technology over the past decade, what was once local has become instantaneously global.
Just this past weekend, by way of example, I watched as Tiger Woods played (and eventually won) the Dubai Desert Classic, a golf tournament halfway around the world -- sometimes in real-time and at others in instant replay. I had no end of options to read about or follow it closely, including the IBM-sponsored PGATour.Com But the best part was that I had any option at all, something avid sports fans didn't have when growing up with Jim McKay and ABC's "The Wide World of Sports."
The agony of victory and thrill of defeat was all well and good in the wide world of sports, up until about the time the shackles of broadcast commercial TV delayed replays or blackouts and forced you to miss the one game you really wanted to see in that not-very-wide-world-after-all. Call it the agony of oligopoly, where the channels of opportunity were limited by the scarcity of broadcast spectrum and, in turn, the limited number of sports media outlets. The endless capacity of the Internet precludes that from being an issue for the virtual world of sports.
IBM: Helping Fans Get Closer to the Action
Sport has always been very much an "on demand"-oriented endeavor, especially in terms of the need for instantaneous information and results. Thus, the global and individual accessibility of the Internet pairs nicely with the required immediacy of sports.
IBM's innovation in bringing technology to sports occurred early on in the Internet game, beginning with our early IT sponsorships of the U.S. Open, the Masters and PGA Tour, the Olympics, and others. In those experiences, we learned a great deal about the utility and applicability of our technology and the unique power of the Internet to address some very time-sensitive business problems, the lessons of which informed and shaped our product development.
These efforts helped us more effectively address other customers' problems through the lessons we learned from these sports sponsorships, some harder than others. Like the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, when IBM stumbled onto the javelin after being unable to deliver a critical scoring results feed to the news media, who were using the timely information in that feed to inform the rest of the planet. Lesson learned.
That very same year, IBM delivered live results of Tiger Woods' historic and relentless march up the fairways of Augusta to take his first green jacket. The Java-based Internet scorecard developed expressly for the Masters was the first of many innovations in our sports coverage efforts (read my account of a more recent one about the "Point Tracker" from last September's U.S. Open).
And from what I can surmise as I scan the fast-changing digital media landscape, this game is just getting rolling. IP-based digital media online is probably the most recent and important evolution for sports coverage in recent years, and is opening up whole new opportunities for athlete and fan interaction. You've also got fantasy sports leagues, online and console gaming, IPTV...all putting fans closer and closer to the action, and sometimes even directly into the driver's seat.
Gentlemen, Turn On Your Remotes
Take NASCAR, as an example. Just recently, Time Warner Cable sent me an invitation to subscribe to its new "NASCAR In Car" digital cable offering, which will allow me to watch "6 drivers on 6 in-car camera channels with live team audio and real-time in car-data." Does that mean I also get to experience driving into the wall of the Texas Motor Speedway at 180 MPH??? (Read a recent story in CIO magazine to learn how technology is changing NASCAR and helping it build its booming business.) Without the ability to provide multiple feeds through an IP-based broadband pipe, such a feat would have been impossible even just a few short years ago.
The point is this: Moving forward, no matter where in the world you may be, technology is going to allow you to follow your favorite team or athlete no matter where in the world they may be at the moment of, at - and even after -- the event, and increasingly via the device of your choice (Anyone see those ESPN Mobile TV ads in the Super Bowl last night? You thought people talking on the phone at the movies or restaurants was an etiquette issue? Just you wait until you can watch them jump up and down cheering at your cousin's wedding when the Steelers go for two and make it.)
People's behavior and the technology opportunity will certainly have to catch up with one another and make some adjustments, but the best news of all is that fans are going to be able to become a more integral partner in the experience, making the convergence of technology and sports the new team to watch.
I'm personally very much looking forward to the day when I can play in a virtual 3-D foresome with Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger. Until that time, I'll keep practicing my course management on the X-Box.