A decade of sport delivered straight to your phone

2009 IN REVIEW: The pace of change in sport, and media technologies, has been greater in the past 10 years than at any time in history, writes The Observer‘s PAUL HAYWARD

Before Manny Pacquiao defeated Miguel Cotto in Las Vegas last month the American sports writer Dan Wetzel stumbled across a story of technological wizardry that cast the sharpest light on how sport changed in the decade now shuffling to a close.

Wetzel noticed a boxing fan leaning against a wall and watching the pre-fight build-up show on his phone. This fight aficionado had been unable to buy a ticket for the bout so had purchased the pay-per-view package at his home in Phoenix “and set up a Slingbox and had the telecast forwarded to his phone”. To savour the atmosphere he planned to watch it in the palm of his hand outside the doors of the MGM Grand arena while checking live Twitter comments from the media at ringside.

It would be a mistake to think of Wetzel’s new buddy from Arizona as the geek at the gate: a pauper disenfranchised by exorbitant ticket costs. This was a lesson in fan empowerment. The non-live spectator is now a kind of Willy Wonka in a paradise of instant-thrill-availability.

“In 1999 the vast majority of Americans didn’t know how to send or receive a text message on their cell phones,” Wetzel wrote. “Now we watch TV on the thing. The biggest story of the decade wasn’t what Pacquiao did but where you could watch him do it.”

This is one revolution that will be televised. The old models of image and information dispersal have been demolished. For all the dramas on the field of the play technology is the real story of sport in the so-called Noughties. At Premier League football grounds now it is common to sit behind a fan who is watching Jeff Stelling in the Sky Sports Soccer Saturday studio while also observing the game on the turf below.

For some, text alerts, hot clip downloads and breaking news are now part of the package of being a supporter. Sensory overload is available with a few prods of a phone screen.

In the United States, sports pages fight a losing battle for immediacy against NFL and NBA clubs who broadcast their post-match press conferences straight on to their own websites. Why wait for the next day’s paper when you can hear what they said, right here, right now? A newspaper man will answer: because Pravda was not the best source of insights into Kremlin politics, but no one knows how much spectators value the objectivity that an independent media bring to analysis.

The age of the entertainment addict is here in sport. On an iPhone alone a consumer striding into a high street store can acquire applications that will allow him to see Phil Thompson and Charlie Nicholas writhe and shout on Stelling’s panel as the goals go in, and My Madrid, which offers video clips, match updates and ticket sales to Real Madrid devotees. When that fails to entertain, the fan can play God on Soccer Manager.

“You and I can remember the half-time scores being put on number cards on the perimeter board,” says Richard Scudamore, the Premier League chief executive. “There would be a code in the programme ” Match A and so on. Then they’d hook the numbers on the boards and that’s how you knew what was going on at half-time. You think ” where have we come from there? People want instant information, don’t they?”

This year we saw an England game, in Ukraine, broadcast live on the web for the first time and HDTV become a must-have window on live action. Two years ago a Motorola survey in America found that 45% of respondents would rather watch college and NFL football in HD than go to the trouble of attending the match. Meanwhile YouTube now offers an instant playback service not only for the weird and wonderful but for sport’s landmark incidents. Thierry Henry’s double handball for France against the Republic of Ireland in Paris was a YouTube classic waiting to happen.

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Of the next 10 years Scudamore says: “We [the Premier League] actually don’t sell broadcasting rights ” we sell live rights and the games could be on TV or streamed on to the internet or your mobile. Once Sky or whoever has bought those rights they have the right to put them out through any technology they choose. Sky broadband was ultimately about that. We won’t care whether you take it through your satellite or through your broadband.”

In response to these shifts, sport created a world without frontiers. Brazil play England in Doha, Australia and New Zealand contest rugby’s Bledisloe Cup in Hong Kong, and regular-season NFL games bump and grind away at Wembley. Location has been abolished. The game is a series of sensation packages that come from everywhere and nowhere and can be watched on a phone on a mountain top. And this is only the start. One day live action will be seen on watches or the inside of wraparound shades.

The decade is taken here to mean 1 January 2000 to 31 December 2009, and in those 10 years a new game has consumed cricket (Twenty20 was not invented until 2003), Tiger Woods has raised prize-money on the PGA Tour four-fold, the new Wembley and Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium have come to adorn the London skyline, Wimbledon has won the war against rain with a roof on Centre Court and cheating has become institutionalised, from Marion Jones, a junkie for performance-enhancing substances, to deliberate crashes in Formula One, diving on football pitches and joke shop blood capsules in rugby.

But football, specifically Premier League football, best expresses the centrifugal force unleashed by money ” not necessarily one’s own money, more often someone else’s, because sport rode the credit boom as crazily as banks played buckaroo on the American sub-prime mortgage market. The 2000s were the decade when you could go to a bank and persuade them to lend you enough money to buy Liverpool or Manchester United, then use the cash generated by those clubs to pay the interest on the loans. Genius.

This is the first part of an article published in yesterday’s Observer newspaper. To read it in full, click here

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