Will the Web Kill SportsCenter?

In my long-ago days as a sportswriter, I remember watching an early version of SportsCenter with my editor, who nodded toward the screen and said, “that’s killing what we do now.” What he meant was, no longer could daily newspapers remain relevant by filling up column-inches with wire-service box scores and game recaps. By the time our paper hit the doorstep, SportsCenter had been on not once but several times. The highlights game was over, for both newspapers and the three-minute sports-guy recap at the end of the local nightly news. SportsCenter was next.

Fast-forward a couple decades, and there are signs that the Internet may be replacing SportsCenter as the go-to guy for immediate highlights gratification. With the ability to become broadcasters themselves — either through conventional means, like a dedicated cable channel, or directly through the web, leagues everywhere are reining in broadcast rights and keeping content more exclusive, even making a few bucks per highlight in the process. Right now, ESPN is at the height of its power, charging premium fees from cable operators for the right to carry the channel. But for how much longer?

Given its size, reach and ability to shine a big spotlight on slam-dunking stars, ESPN isn’t going away anytime soon. But it doesn’t take much of an Internet expert to figure out that user-selected, on-demand highlight offerings are a better use of anyone’s time than sitting through several cycles of ESPNews or waiting for the next SportsCenter to catch your team’s highlights, or the winning moment from that day’s big event.

According to a story in Monday’s New York Times, online replays of the ongoing NBA playoffs are selling briskly at $3 per game. Mentioned in the story is a forthcoming ability to search through such clips for highlighted plays, probably via technology like that from startup Gotuit, which similarly indexed highlights in clips for the NFL draft.

As leagues start to compete with traditional broadcasters for eyeballs on the web, cable and TV, expect them to withhold the best content for themselves, or offer saturation in their niche, to vie for the eyes and wallets of the soon-to-be-overstuffed couch (and laptop) potatoes. In the end, it always comes down to time — how much of it you have, and how much of it you’re willing to spend to get to what you really want to watch.

Clearly, ESPN is a leader on the Web as well as on cable, already with more offerings — written word, audio, video, still photos — than you could consume in several seasons of casual sports-surfing. But the leagues, owners of the content, are starting to go places ESPN can’t, like allowing fans to clip, save, mashup and share actual action footage. So what happens to SportsCenter if the leagues start keeping the highlights to themselves? Funny as they may be, nobody’s going to watch the SportsCenter announcers say booyah to each other for a half-hour stretch.


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