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Wide World of Web Sports: A Waiting Game

Mark Cuban is not a man who minces words. Cuban, who sold Broadcast.com to Yahoo! for a cool $5.7 billion in the spring of 1999, and in turn bought the Dallas Mavericks from Ross Perot Jr. for $280 million a year ago, has already racked up some $300,000 in fines this season for, er, voicing his opinions about the refereeing in the National Basketball Association.

He also has a few choice words to say about the streaming of sports content on the Web. Even after making out on the Yahoo! deal, Cuban has no illusions about the current state of streaming professional sports, when other forms of media clearly dominate the viewing experience.

"It's not that big a deal when everything we do is on TV, on satellite TV, or available in streaming audio through League Pass on NBA.com," says Cuban about a program that allows registered users to listen to NBA games on the Web. However, he says, "I do love the long-term potential of digital delivery of content and for on-demand availability of content."



"I don't believe there is a demand for a full length game experience on a postage stamp-size video"


The demand for streaming content is growing — Yahoo! streamed 15 million hours of content in the month of September alone. And despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the shape of broadcast rights and bandwidth limitations, ultimately the technology will catch up with the dream. Live streaming audio coverage of most major sporting events is here already, and while video is limited to short clips, the leagues are beginning to wake up to the personalized potential the Internet holds for highlights.

But the dream won't be achieved without some considerable growing pains. Sports organizations' big-money contracts with traditional broadcasters, concerns about transmission quality, and viewer habits, form hurdles to growth that cannot be ignored.


A Golden Opportunity Missed

One sporting event that could have demonstrated the potential for streaming sports content was the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. A painful 18-hour delay in the television coverage for U.S. viewers made the outcome of some Olympic events already yesterday's news. This seemed the perfect opportunity for the Internet to show off its immediate stuff, when information could make it around the world in the time it takes to click a mouse.

"The time-zone problems that NBC faced, worked in our advantage," says Michael Silberman, executive editor at MSNBC. "Stuff happened late at night in Sydney and it was early in the morning East Coast time, and we could post it on the Web site. Having something available when users are interested in it and can come to it any time of the day, it makes a lot of sense on the Web."

Unfortunately, most of the Web coverage of the Sydney Games was limited to text, due to restrictions set by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The IOC allowed online video coverage of events only by NBC Sports (who had purchased the U.S. broadcasting rights for the 2000 Games), and then only with a 24-hour delay over a closed network that limited distribution to about 100,000 U.S. households.

Why couldn't fans in the United States watch the athletes going for the gold on their PCs in the wee hours of the night? The IOC sells television broadcast rights based on geographic location, and since it is nearly impossible to limit anything distributed over the Internet to a confined geographic audience, any video shown would infringe on broadcast rights. Despite much protest from Internet companies, the IOC isn't swayed to change because it believes the potential Web audience is too small to risk upsetting the television broadcasters who reportedly accounted for $1.33 billion of the total $2.6 billion in revenue for the 2000 Games.

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