A decade doesn't pass the way it once did.
That perception is not merely a reflection of advancing age - though perhaps it's part of it - but of the lightning-fast transformations experienced now, the seismic shifts that seem to take place in an instant.
In the first 10 years of the 21st century, the way we consumed sport, its delivery mechanisms, its culture and form, changed remarkably. High-definition television, still an experimental medium in 1999, is now in many ways the standard. Direct streaming of events via high-speed Internet - remember dial-up? - has gone from wild notion to shaky, stop/start pictures to something equal to or better than broadcast quality. In 1999, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was a glorified tough-man contest targeting the lowest-brow crowd; today, cleaned up and codified, mixed martial arts under the same brand name is a mainstream sport that hits a young, sweet-spot demographic.
Conversations this week with sports and television executives and academics suggest that we ain't seen nothing yet, that 10 years from now the landscape will be recognizable, but also profoundly transformed. Those changes will have less to do with the games and athletes themselves (though you can be guaranteed we will still be talking about performance-enhancing drugs/genetic engineering at the end of this decade), but in the way we consume them as entertainment.
Begin with who watches, and why. Sport is part spectacle, part escape, part religion, part communal experience. Without a rooting interest, it doesn't mean much, and a rooting interest detached from hearth and home and life experience isn't the same as one with organic roots. The foundation of the business is that people care, that they attach themselves to a city, to a uniform, to a history, and often hang on to it for their entire lives, through thick and thin, through championship dynasties and long, long walks in the desert.
There is still appeal and value in that, in immersion in something larger, in simply being part of a crowd in an arena or stadium, caring about the same thing at the same time, an increasingly rare opportunity in the modern world. But the magical experience that once came automatically with walking through the doors of a hallowed arena, or emerging into the stands to see a green field and brightly coloured uniforms means more to those raised in a game-of-the week world than those coming of age in a time of perpetual availability. The boomers and their buying power are heading toward the sunset, and the talk in the sports business now is about how to attract and hold a different generation, with a different, diminished attention span, accustomed to having the whole world laid out for them, every minute of every day, literally at their fingertips.
Getting them out of their homes and into the building or into the ballpark, getting their eyes to linger for more than a few seconds as a game flickers across a screen - not to mention the advertising that pays the freight - has become the core challenge.
Those who run North American professional sport will be trying to find fresh sources of revenue. Most everyone seems to believe that at least one of the leagues (most likely the NBA or the NHL) will establish franchises in Europe by the end of this decade, and with David Stern having recently opened the door a crack, it's not hard to imagine at least one sport in partnership with cash-hungry governments exploiting the massive possibilities of legalized sports gambling. (That would be extraordinary only in a North American context. In many other places, you have long been able to bet games on site.)
But the primary economic engines will remain the two traditional revenue streams in professional sport: ticket sales, in all of their variations, and broadcasting, both in a traditional network/rights fees/advertising structure, and increasingly through new media and direct delivery.
Network television as we've known it may be in trouble, perhaps even in its death throes, but live sports programming could remain a lifeline, because unlike every other form of programming, it is nearly PVR-proof. You can record a game and watch it whenever, skipping happily past the commercials, but its greatest value is in the here and now, in the unpredictability of the outcome, in needing to know who won and who lost when it happens. So for the time being, networks will continue to pay significant money for the right to televise sporting events, and for teams and leagues, that will continue to outweigh the attraction of cutting out the middleman entirely, of taking control not just of the content, but of the pipeline. Not that they won't continue to move in that direction, with their own television channels holding exclusive rights to a portion of their inventory, coupled with an endless stream of exclusive, insider information (the middlemen who get cut out in that case aren't just the television networks, but to some degree conventional sports journalists).
Whether those games are broadcast or streamed is a distinction that by the end of the decade will be all but meaningless: There will be a screen in your house, it will be attached to a box, and through it will come everything. The picture, sooner rather than later, will be in 3D. Though the announcement this week that ESPN will broadcast the opening game of the World Cup in that form might have caught many by surprise, the technology is already sufficiently advanced that it is only a question (as it was with HD) of when broadcasters believe its worthwhile taking on the extra production costs - or alternately, when hardware prices drop sufficiently that consumer demand creates the need for more content. By 2011, 3D-ready sets will be widely available, at a price only slightly higher than HD-ready televisions fetch right now, and 3D channels will be providing coverage of the biggest sports events.
Those games, and all games, will soon be presented in such a way that viewers at home can choose their own replays, choose what they hear and what they see, and also dip into a continuous stream of game-related information at the same time. Simply sitting back and watching for two or three hours at a time is no longer an option - as anyone with even a passing knowledge of teenagers could already tell you.
The irony is that with the evolution of 3D home theatre/computer, it will become ever more difficult to turn couch potatoes into ticket buyers. There have been plenty of empty seats visible in all sports this past year, which is in part a reflection of the shattered economy, and in part of the reality that enduring a snowstorm to watch a lousy team play out the string, when the alternative at home is pretty darned good, can become an option only for the true diehard. Long gone are the days of sitting in a drafty rink with only the game, the public address announcer, and the odd flourish of organ music as a distraction. The in-game experience, which has grown ever louder and more frenetic over the past quarter century, is about to enter territory that for some will seem like sensory overload.
Thus we have the new Texas Stadium, Jerry Jones's $1-billion vision of the future, a place where attending a game includes all of the high-tech conveniences of home, and then some (watching a game broadcast from there brings the so far unique experience of hearing the crowd react not just to what's going on the field, but to what they're seeing on the world's biggest video screen). Right now, the consensus seems to be that superstadiums, because of the cost, won't become the norm, nor will individual in-seat monitors, except in private boxes and club sections. Instead, the means to enhancing the live game experience - with those in the know, the concept comes up in conversation again and again - is the telephone, or at least the next generation of smart-phones: imagine the crowd at the Rogers Centre watching a Blue Jays game while being fed replays and statistics and unique content through their Rogers phones via Rogers wireless (one reason why the communications giant might still have an appetite for the professional sports business despite its rocky ride as an owner in Major League Baseball and part-time host of the Buffalo Bills). A 19-year-old will tell you that's how they already live their lives, that surfing and texting and television viewing are meant to be done concurrently, that minus multitasking, sports - and just about anything else - is boring.
The parent of a 19-year-old might think that sounds sort of like sitting in Exhibition Stadium with a transistor plugged into your ear, tuned to Tom and Jerry, but of course, they'd be dead wrong.