The Ultimate in Televised Sports
How's this for a sports fantasy: About 10 years from now you find yourself with some time to relax and a big, big weekend coming up. The Seattle Mariners and Boston Red Sox are on early in the afternoon, you've got the Knicks and Heat coming up late, and then that big welterweight "Fight of the Century" coming on about midnight. Sunday there's the golf tournament at 1, the auto race at 4 and the NFL game you've waited all season for at 8. You pop that corn, settle down in front of your TV and Internet screens, reach for the remote and lean back.
You flip on the tube just in time to get the match you've been waiting for. Here's Alex Rodriguez, hitter of the decade, batting against five-time Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez -- or is that four MVPs? You thumb a button, and there are Pedro's career numbers in a box -- it is five Cy Youngs. You push another button and there are his career numbers against Rodriguez. A-Rod is hitting .287 off him, 30 points lower than his career mark, but still higher than anyone else against Martinez.
Instantly, you get a red box that sections off Rodriguez's strike zone, showing you which parts of it he hits for what averages, and the blue lines tell you which part of the strike zone Martinez frequents. Then, the pitch. As it hits the catcher's mitt, you get the velocity, 92 mph, and a blue line showing you the trajectory and the spot where it intersected the red line of Rodriguez's strike zone -- only this pitch didn't! The umpire called it a strike, but he can't see what you saw, namely that the blue line never "passed" through the red box. You flip another switch and find that this ump is notorious for giving that pitch to the hitter: His success ratio at getting the call right is one of the lowest in the league. You wish Rodriguez had the same information you do and knew not to take that pitch again.
But he doesn't take the next one, and your screen lights up in an orange flash as the velocity of the ball collides with the force of Rodriguez's swing. You're told that he has gotten 96 percent of his maximum potential power behind the ball and you watch the spectacular arc as it soars over the right field wall. What a shot! Was that 430 or 440 feet? You flick a button and watch as a parabola shows the arc of the ball and instantly tells you the distance: 432 feet, the fifth longest home run of Rodriguez's career.
And that's just the first 10 minutes of your weekend. What part of this is fantasy? Well, besides the obvious reply from a Red Sox fan that no one will hit a 432-foot home run off Pedro Martinez, just one thing: the fact that it takes place 10 years from now. Everything you need to enjoy that dream sports weekend in your easy chair exists.
That doesn't mean you can get it all now, but it exists in one form or another. Oh yes, all this and much, much more. Forget just watching the event; in the very near future, you will be experiencing it. As Bill Squadron, chief executive officer of Sportsvision, phrases it, "Within five years, the multimedia experience will be the way most fans experience major sports events."
Squadron -- whose company gave the world the glowing hockey puck (Boo! said three-quarters of hockey fans) and the yellow first-down marker in football (Yeah! said 92 percent of football fans) -- is working hard, as are companies such as Trakus and Princeton Video Image (whose orange-colored yard marker is currently favored by CBS for its NFL telecasts), to make every notion we have about how to view sports obsolete.
Basketball? How about instant information on your favorite player's vertical leap, or colored "zones" highlighting his favorite shooting spots and what the percentages are from each? There are already some NBA arenas equipped with "Choice Seat" terminals where fans can order replays from various camera angles; it's only a matter of time till fans at home have the same options.
Boxing? No more plain old punch counts in which all left hooks are created equal. A tiny transmitter in the glove can tell us which punches really landed solidly and which ones were blocked and slipped, and, more important, with how much force they landed. The era of bad decisions should be over -- at least until Don King finds a way to influence a transmitter.
"We can blur the line," says Trakus' Eric Spitz, "between watching and playing." Then, after a pause, "But maybe that's not such a good thing." I assume he means not for everyone, all the time. The new fan-friendly sports technologies may make you feel like you've just taken a football to the head, a left hook to the rib cage or a hit from a 240-pound linebacker. All of this, of course, is terrific -- unless maybe you just want to watch the game.
A few years ago a friend of mine lent me some tapes of Red Barber broadcasting World Series games of the Joe DiMaggio era. There were no complex statistics, no hype and, of course, no visuals. Just poetry. When the wind was blowing the flag. A description of how the fielders were set. An anecdote or two about each player. With nothing to work with but words, Barber painted a picture of the game that kick-started my own imagination in a way that technology never could.
Increasingly in the age of instant replay, isolated camera angles and instant stat sheets, teams of announcers have tried frantically to keep up with the tidal wave of information, talk talk talking to us as if we needed every on-air second filled with ... commentary, something besides our own enjoyment of the game. The faster they scramble, the farther behind some of us get.
Don't get me wrong. I love all the new technology. I'm going to have every new toy that's perfected as fast as it's available. But I want at least one of those buttons on my instrument panel to offer me a little ... a little poetry, or at least a little tranquillity, maybe a channel or frequency where an announcer, now free from the burden of having to keep up with all the information, just talks about the game. And in the end, that may prove to be technology's greatest gift to the sports fan.
Allen Barra is a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a regular contributor to the New York Times, Playboy and American Heritage, and Salon, where this article originally appeared.