I'll Have The Fish

I have a few friends who spent a lot of time with the recent U.S. Open Tennis Championship. They attended a couple of sessions, and they followed the matches in progress when they couldn't attend. A few other guys I know are major golf nuts and are interested enough in the PGA Tour to follow every round on an almost stroke-by stroke basis.

Neither of these two groups of sports fans spent any significant time watching the events on TV. They were anchored to the web, to mobile apps, and to their iPhones. While most of these folks have HD TV sets and ran to them to watch the finals, neither group chose TV as their primary channel of information right up until the end. I asked them why and one responded that TV was "too limiting."

Having spent the first 25 years of my media career in TV, I'm not sure that I agree but I do understand what he meant. "Old media" is lean back -- content is pushed to you the way a customer is served at a restaurant. Imagine, however, that you walk into the joint and have very little choice in what you're eating other than Japanese or Italian. In my mind, that's sort of what sports via traditional media is about. You choose football and watch the game as it's delivered to you.

Contrast that with sports via newer channels. You can follow the golfer you want, shot by shot. You can build your own leaderboards, whether it's just out of a love of particular golfers or to follow your fantasy team. Sometimes you get to choose from among a number of video streams to watch a particular hole or match (I'll tip my hat here to the recent job the PGA did at its recent championship and the job the Tour does each week).

As content vendors (which we are despite the fact that people paint their faces in honor of our content), we need to offer a menu. There are literally only a handful of successful restaurants that get away with serving diners what the chef wants to cook and don't offer a choice. While each sporting event may be unique, we are in constant competition with other forms of entertainment and media that, in many consumers' minds, are a legitimate alternative. If we force them into eating the meal we've chosen and let them choose to consume our events in a manner that's equally as good and equally appealing, we lose.

As an example of doing it right, another hat tip to my former colleagues at CBS Sports. This season they'll be web streaming all 15 of the network's SEC football games plus they have an iPhone app that features a college football scoreboard, in-game box scores and stats, game centers for each of the week's top 25 games, polls, news headlines and standings. That's a pretty good menu to appeal to those who want to "lean forward" and order up their sports seasoned the way they like it.

I don't know of any entity in sports that doesn't understand this but it also creates a series of issues. What happens when the name on the building is Verizon and the team sponsor is AT&T? How do we define categories when the cable companies are getting into wireless and the mobile guys are delivering video via a wire into the home? How do the rights for satellite radio work when the satellite content is streamed to mobile devices such as iPhones or BlackBerries and not through the dedicated satellite receivers the companies furnish?

I've dealt personally with every one of those questions in the last few years and I know many of you out there have as well. The answers that are going to "win" are those that focus on the needs of the fans, which, at times and superficially, may not seem to be in total sync with those of broadcasters, leagues or organizers.

However, as CBS, the USTA, the PGA Tour, and others have found out, people don't like to be force fed now that they've seen the whole menu. As an industry, it's our job to make sure the menu is interesting and everything on it is delicious since the fans love to eat!

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