I can just picture myself 15 years from now trying to explain to a 6-year-old that in ‘my day’ we didn’t have multi-cellular sub-cutaneous Wi-Fi delivered directly to our higher brain functions; we actually had to gather information for ourselves, at which point he or she will remind me that I grew up with gobs of technology. In fact, most of us have grown up with the most astonishing volume and variety of technological advancements, we don’t even realize how much they’ve shaped our lives; try to think of a world without instant replay or super slow motion and you’ll see what I mean. Nothing exemplifies this better than the internet, the beacon and bastion of innovation, invention and newly created industries of our time. So integral is the web to our everyday lives, we are hardly even aware of how much we depend on it, or how much it’s transformed everything we do, especially when it comes to entertainment. The web has delivered to sports fans everywhere their ultimate fantasy toy; a means of staying actively involved in the day-to-day minutiae of their beloved athletes and teams. Like any other business, professional sports has exploited the internet as a major new revenue stream, but did so by giving their consumers more of what they wanted, and as result they have played a huge role in developing the web into the mega-tool it is today. Here are what I consider to be the top 10 ways technology has changed sports;
10. Real ‘Real Time’
One of the most appealing aspects about following sports is the undeniable sense of the unknown, the thrill of spontaneous action and the tension of uncertainty in which anything could happen and often does. It’s what makes watching a live sporting event so exciting, and used to be what could also make it so frustrating; if you didn’t see it happen, you had to rely on a sports report or replay that couldn’t possibly hope to replicate the drama and emotion of raw, athletic competition as it was happening. Now, you don’t have to.
With the advent of the internet, tablet devices and smart phones, sports fans have never been so hooked up. You can literally watch a live basketball game from the United States on your phone while flying tens of thousands of feet in the air between Mumbai and Jakarta, and keep up a running commentary with potentially hundreds of other fans via message boards or forums. Vast numbers of websites offer real time sports events and results for every possible professional or amateur competition you can think of; where else would I have learned the annual World Championship of Joggling, a combination of racing and juggling, was first held in 1980? Major events like the Olympics and FIFA World Cup and professional sports leagues around the world have their own huge online presence, offering fans unprecedented access to interviews, rosters, statistics, schedules, tickets and features as well as interactive blogs and forums. The web has given sports fans the ability to enjoy virtually any sporting event around the globe in real time, making none happier than the small but committed contingent of Guatemalan Joggling enthusiasts.
Like pretty much any new entity, as soon as people figured out a way to make money from the internet, certain unsavory elements crept in from the beginning (I’m looking at you babygotback.com) and have basically formed the stable platform out of which it launched from hopeful start-up to unrepentant cash cow. For online sports, one such platform has been gambling.
Betting on sporting events is as old as competition itself, and but has always been associated with its less palatable elements such as organized crime, cheating and fraud. However, in a bizarre twist, the internet has somehow made sports wagering more acceptable, not less, and hasn’t fallen prey to the stereotypical denouncements from the past that it’s the gateway to personal and societal destruction. Now this isn’t entirely good news, as few (if any) of the thousands of sports gambling websites worldwide screen their customers in any way, which means that any kid old enough to access the web and a credit card can place their life savings or that of their parents on the Super Bowl. Though technically this will likely run afoul of local ordinances, very few cases of underage gambling have been brought to trial, which speaks volumes about how ubiquitous it is for tweens to be betting on UFC fights three times a week, and have probably been doing so for years.
Got a beef with the Yankees starting pitching? Give them an earful at http://newyork.yankees.mlb.com. Think Lebron has been dogging it on defense lately? Tweet him @KingJames and let him know. Looking to land the first English language interview with Chico Esquela in 40 years? Just take a minute to browse www.baseball-reference.com to crush that fantasy. The truth is, sports and their fans have never been so interconnected in so many ways, and it’s all thanks to technology. You can literally wake up to an update on Tiger Woods‘ backache on Twitter, get all-day cricket reporting via email and listen to a podcast interview with Serena Williams on your way home on the bus. Many young athletes today have their own website before they even sign with a major league team, something that would’ve been unheard of even 10 years ago, but is increasingly part of the package when it comes to athletic careers. Staying on top of your game now means staying in touch with fans and critics alike in ways never before utilized and which continue to emerge and evolve as the technology that created it becomes ever more accepted and commonplace.
This is the other side of the coin when it comes to the crazy accessibility of online sports; it has created an almost insatiable demand on owners and management to produce winning results for every single competition every single night. Fans not only want to hear from the organization on why their team isn’t successful, they want to tell them why and they want them to respond to their critiques by giving them what they want; a successful, winning team. This is why knowing a star player has developed knee inflammation weeks before the playoffs can give thousands of hometown fans the power to demand the team’s contingency plans for a minor league call up should that be necessary, and woe be to the team’s PR department should those concerns go unheeded.
Technology is simply everywhere, it’s inescapable, it surrounds us and bombards us with reams of information on a daily basis. Notebooks, tablets, iPods, and smartphones are as common today as the wristwatches and pens from yesteryear which they have largely been replaced. Someone would have to expend a great deal of energy to shield themselves from the constant barrage of data freely available mostly anywhere on the face of the Earth. There’s no turning back either, from the moment we learned to create fire, we’ve been in love with technology ever since, and are determined to produce more, not less of it. If you think technology is hard to escape now, just wait until everyone is wearing some form of VR headset and try and remember when you thought remote controlled television was the living end.
Over 10 years ago, I asked a co-worker what would happened if I threw her Blackberry out the window. Without even looking up from the device, she calmly replied ‘I would throw you out of the freaking window.’ Our obsessive compulsion to increasingly rely and depend upon technology has created whole societies whose populations are completely enslaved by it. People devote entire conversations to their frustrations at charging devices while travelling, since travelling without smartphones, tablets or a notebook PC would be unthinkable to them. Now that technology has become universally commonplace, we can feed our information addictions for ever more sporting minutiae from unlimited sources in the blink of an eye. Fans can gather and commiserate about any number of concerns plaguing their favorite teams and stars on any number of forums and fan sites that cater to the diehard supporters that live and breath sports. At some point, we may want to take a closer look at the effects of this techno-addiction, but for right now we would all rather just get our Twitter feed updates on the NCAA Finals and call it a day.
If someone had suggested in 2002 that you could ‘tweet’ Derek Jeter about his OBP through Spring training, or that he would ‘tweet’ you back, you probably would’ve thought they were drunk. But Twitter and other social media have provided an unbelievable platform for athletes and their fans for unprecedented interaction. The immediacy of communicating with star players across vast distances in real time has meant that sports are enjoying levels of support from their patrons like never before and are providing more and more avenues for them to do so. It doesn’t hurt that society in general has been extremely quick to adopt and embrace these new innovations, which makes the idea of receiving a tweet from your favorite pitcher at 3 am denying reports of a shoulder injury, all the more normal.
The flip side of all this inter-connectivity is the enormous pressure of accountability it brings with it. With so much information being demanded to answer the barrage of questions and concerns by their fans, owners, management and players are now held to account for their successes or failures to an incredibly detailed degree. Fans are now privy to virtually the same volume of information about teams and players as the leagues themselves are, and have the means to impart their criticisms or congratulations on a regular basis. This leaves very little wiggle room for teams or players to stay silent while ignoring media or fan inquiries, something that can quickly mar reputations and make a star player seem like a distant and unapproachable prima donna.
Few multi-billion dollar businesses can claim to literally make or break celebrity status like professional sports. Success can start as early as a 6 foot 5 inch pre-teen basketball player makes his first monster dunk, and can carve a lasting legacy of adulation and appreciation that can lead to Hall of Fame status. Failure will mean inflaming the ire of fans everywhere, and can usher in obscurity and shattered dreams faster than you can say ‘A Star is Born.’ There is an undeniable power being wielded by the forces of technology that have made it possible for unknown athletes all over the world to rise to prominence and wealth in literally the time it takes to upload a youtube video. Whatever the pros or cons of the increasingly complex relationship between sports and technology, the reality is that it is far more likely to become ever more interconnected as these entities continue to merge and enjoy substantial success.
Finally, we get down to what it’s all about; money. Technology over the past 25 years has created nearly infinite wealth for athletes, teams, owners and leagues that have reaped impressive financial rewards the digital age has ushered in. The costs for television advertising during popular sporting events has grown astronomically, as have player contracts and team revenues that include hefty merchandising profits, while the costs for average fans that used to be able to afford to attend these events has grown prohibitive. There may well come a time in the not too distant future when some form of restraint is applied to these multi-billion dollar expenditures, but I wouldn’t hold your breath just yet, as there’s no indication that this vast tsunami of money will be in jeopardy any time soon. Until then, it’s clear that fans and athletes have a good thing going, and no one is prepared to spoil the party.