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By Steven Levingston
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

For the football fanatic, the lead-up to Super Bowl Sunday is exhilarating, but it's also draped in a creeping melancholy: The high-adrenaline, beer-sozzled party days of the football season are winding down.

Good heavens, what to do next?

The omnivorous sports fan knows that answer is easy. Catch up with the National Basketball Association and the Wizards. Zero in on NCAA men's basketball ahead of tournament competition in March. There's golf, wrestling, auto racing, extreme winter sports and pro and college hockey. The Nationals begin spring training next month. And let's not forget: The Winter Olympics are just around the corner.

The real question is: How does a fan of any one sport, or all of them, feed the obsession? How does the fanatic watch sports as much as humanly possible?

Well that, of course, is why God created the Internet. With sharp gains in the quality of online video, dedicated fans are increasingly watching live sports on their computer screens. And as consumers demand to see more events -- from big-league games to niche college sports -- the online offerings are proliferating.

"The Internet has changed the experience of the sports fan in a way that they're now able to follow the team they want or the sport they want on a 24/7, 365-day basis," said Brian T. Bedol, chief executive and co-founder of CSTV Networks Inc., which offers a range of college sports online. "It's a different sort of experience than just a year or two ago: The quality of streaming video is much better. While it doesn't replace the high-definition experience, it's a great supplement."

The movement is picking up momentum as fans show a willingness to open their wallets for subscriptions. This week, the NBA announced that for the first time, it will offer live video webcasts of regular-season games on its Web site, NBA.com -- available to fans who already buy TV subscriptions to the games through their cable or satellite system. The league also recently struck a deal with Google Inc. that allows fans to purchase games 24 hours after the final buzzer to download to a computer. "We're looking at video in a whole new way this year," said Steve Grimes, senior director of interactive services for the NBA.

The National Football League is considering putting some of its out-of-market games live on the Internet next year, according to a person familiar with the league's intentions. Video will become a bigger part of the league's Internet effort, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because discussions are still underway. The NFL may place an additional camera at games to be used exclusively for streaming the action onto the Internet, the source said.

Major League Baseball already makes its games outside local viewing markets available live online. Lots of college sports -- from football and basketball to gymnastics and wrestling -- are streamed live over the Internet. Most of these games require subscription fees; in a few cases, such as this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament, the games can be seen for free.

The accelerated migration of live sports to the Internet is pushing the development of online video in a dramatic new direction. Last year, the television networks began allowing consumers to download hit shows such as "Desperate Housewives" and "CSI" to their computers. Those shows, however, were available only after their original broadcast. Live sports online more closely mimics traditional TV viewing, foreshadowing the ultimate convergence of the TV and the computer that many analysts predict.

The fees that sports Web sites generate from live video represent a handsome revenue stream. Live games also serve to draw viewers to the sites, where they may spend money in other ways; some of the Web sites sell merchandise and tickets to games -- two significant sources of revenue.

For instance, MLB Advanced Media LP, the company that runs Major League Baseball's Web site and the sites of all 30 teams, launched five years ago to enable fans to listen to radio broadcasts of games. Limited video offerings arrived in the 2002 season, and then in the 2004-2005 season, every game was made available live online. The number of subscribers who pay to watch or listen to baseball online has climbed to 1.3 million in 2005 from 125,000 in 2001. MLB Advanced Media has increased its revenue to an estimated $265 million from $36 million over the same period.

While helping to boost sports sites' revenue, fans watching live games online could further slice up the media audience -- unwelcome news for the traditional television networks. As fanatics choose to sit alone in front of the computer, rooting for their beloved team, they could ignore the evening programming lineup on the living room TV. If cable, satellite, video games and iPods weren't enough trouble already, the TV networks could face yet another source of competition for viewers' attention.

The biggest sports events, however, do not appear to be in any danger of losing their appeal as broadcasting's crown jewels. The most attractive destination events -- such as Sunday NFL games, the Super Bowl and the Olympics -- are not expected to head to the Internet anytime soon. Their broadcast rights are so lucrative -- and so highly protected -- they will likely remain as television-only live events.

In many cases, Web sites are prohibited from using post-game video clips of professional sporting events because the leagues tightly guard the rights. The strict rules on usage help the owners of the video -- such as the MLB and the NFL -- bolster their Web sites and ensure revenue. Usage on an outside Web site is allowed only through licensing, whereas TV news programs can show clips as part of their reporting on daily sports events. "Major League Baseball has been very protective of its interactive media rights," said Jim Gallagher, a spokesman for the league.

Rights issues also prevent some subscribers to live-online video from seeing local games on their computers. Games broadcast on TV in local markets are often kept off the Internet, meaning that often only out-of-market games are streamed online.

Complicated rights constraints keep live action at the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, off of NBCOlympics.com, the online site for the Games. "In the Olympics, there is no out-of-market -- every market is a home market," said Gary Zenkel, president, NBC Olympics Inc.

Though the rights issues are tricky, some online sports sites are encouraged that the new media world is evolving in ways that will eventually make big events available live online. "It certainly represents a challenge because this entire world is just emerging and people don't know how to treat it," said Tanya Van Court, vice president and general manager of ESPN Broadband and Interactive Television. "Whether you're the NFL, the NCAA or a high school hockey team, you want your content in front of your fans in as many places as possible. Nobody wants their content out of the mix."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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