A Little Bundle of Games, Stats

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The NFL's next big thing could be a small, yellow television that rents for $39.95 and can be found in the hands of Washington Redskins fans this season at FedEx Field.

The gadget known as Kangaroo TV, which weighs a pound and is the size of a fist, allows fans to watch any NFL game live on DirecTV from their seats. The device is one part of the NFL's effort to find new media avenues to distribute its product.

"We know the world is changing and technology is moving fast, so you have to take advantage of those technologies to improve the fan experience at the stadiums," said Brian Rolapp, NFL senior vice president of media strategy. "Our future growth depends on it."

The NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and NASCAR are pushing the same technological envelope, supplying news, scores and statistics on iPods and cellphones, streaming audio and video of live games on the Internet, and starting their own in-house television networks.

The NFL stands to make the most from new media gadgets because its scale and popularity is much greater than those of its competitors. The league earned $5.8 billion -- including $4 billion from TV contracts -- last year compared with $4.7 billion for Major League Baseball, $3 billion for the NBA, and $2.1 billion for the NHL.

The NFL is in the second year of a five-year, $500 million deal with Sprint to deliver NFL highlights, interviews, profiles and statistics on cellphones. It signed a similar, though less lucrative, deal with Apple's iTunes earlier this year to deliver content. The NFL has a deal with Yahoo! to stream live games outside North America.

"The NFL has this careful balance that it has to think through," said Marc S. Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports marketing firm. "The over-the-air television revenues are the mother's milk of the league. It wants to be certain not to compromise those games. The potential upside in revenues and enhancing fan's experience from new media has to be compared with the potential of stubbing its toe and hurting its brand."

Rolapp said the league carefully protects its live-game television window, allowing only highlights to be available in most of the new media deals it has signed. The Kangaroo deal allows the league to tap into the million or so fans who attend the NFL's 256 regular season games.

"We always look to enhance the experience of the fans in the stadium," Rolapp said. "One way is to keep them up to date with other action around the league. That's what [DirecTV] does at home. We asked why can't we bring that to the person in the stadium and to make that experience the best it can be."

The NFL and Redskins have been testing Kangaroo TV at FedEx, and there were two bright yellow booths, one inside and one outside the stadium, at a recent home game, where fans paid $39.95 to rent the hand-held sets. They also were available for $129.99 for the rest of the season for season ticket holders. The 3-by-4-inch television screens are equipped with an earphone and carry the DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket package, which broadcasts every game. A Kangaroo spokesman said hundreds of fans are renting units at Redskins game.

Chris Stallings, 40, a season ticket holder from Chesapeake, Va., who received a Kangaroo TV as part of a Redskins promotion, said he liked checking other games and scores at halftime, but found the device to be a distraction and potentially expensive.

"I'm already spending $300 to go to a game with my wife, so on top of the ticket, the parking and the food I bought while I was there, I don't need to spend another $40 to hear what someone next to me with a TV can tell me," said Stallings, who is a technical recruiter. "It was cool, but if I was going to have to pay for the device, I doubt I would do that."

Kelsey Payne, 27, of Columbia, thought Kangaroo TV was "definitely worth the money."

"I liked the in-game highlights, especially because of the lack of up-to-date scoreboards at FedEx Field," said Payne, a telecommunications engineer who follows fantasy football. "I went from game to game."

This year, none of the parties involved -- the NFL, DirecTV, Kangaroo and the Redskins -- expects to make much money. They are not even sure whether the revenue will come from fans renting the device, advertising by local companies or increased DirecTV subscriptions. If Kangaroo TV takes off, however, the devices could be in wide distribution by next year. DirecTV, which pays the NFL $700 million a year for the Sunday Ticket, hopes to be in at least 10 more stadiums next season.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company