In Depth

Column: Give Broadband a Sporting Chance

On any given Sunday, millions of Americans sink into their couches and watch football on their gigantic plasma-screen high-definition television sets from morning until night.

So what’s a sports fan to do if you want to go cable-free, as I have done for six weeks and counting? I’m a retired sports fan (I gave up my baseball addiction after Mariano Rivera blew the 2001 World Series), so it doesn’t bother me to be without sports on TV.

But this experiment in the broadband video lifestyle isn’t just about me—it’s about whether I can replicate programming over the Internet that others want to see.

Besides, there’s a perception that the Web alone can’t satisfy sports fans.

That’s why I put sports to the test, starting with the most popular sport of all—football. Can a sports fan get his or her Sunday football fix on the Web? (Stay with me; I will get to other sports before the end of this column.)

At first I thought, “There’s no way you can watch National Football League games on the Web.” Then I learned that NBC and the NFL are live-streaming Sunday night football games this season. On Sunday, Nov. 23, I visited at 1:30 p.m. PT, about four hours before kickoff, and voila! On the upper right-hand corner of the page a link said, “Sunday Night Football Extra: Watch Colts vs. Chargers Live Online.” Easy enough.

When I returned at 5:15, the button invitingly encouraged me to “watch now.” So I did—and I could choose from five different camera angles or have all five pictures play at once, with the one in the middle delivering the sound.

That’s a blessing and a curse, because each time I switched cameras I was subjected to an ad—sometimes Toyota, sometimes Gillette, but always a deterrent to toggling between views.

Aside from that, the experience was decent. The picture wasn’t hi-def nor was it gee-whiz huge. But it didn’t stutter or buffer; it streamed seamlessly. Also, you can zoom in to the picture or make it full-screen. When it’s in full-screen mode, your computer feels a lot like a TV—one of those 13-inch sets you place on the kitchen counter to watch while cooking.

Football isn’t the only sport you can get online. Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League offer varying degrees of paid access for live games online. You also can watch college football, the Olympics (as we learned this summer) and varied other sports. Many of the games are blacked out if you live in the same town as the team.

But don’t take it from me that this Internet sports thing works. I surveyed my Twitter and Facebook friends to see which sports they watch online and how, and here’s what they said.

“Watched the ALCS online the night they had issues with TBS transmission. … Next year I’ll watch more, since I won’t be getting cable at the weekend retreat.”

“I watch baseball online via the MLB Web site for an annual fee. I’m a Dodgers fan living in [Philadelphia], so this is the best way for me to catch my team playing.”

“Watched ‘live look-ins’ of the Steelers game on on Thursday night since my cable company can’t be bothered to carry the NFL Network. (I miss DirecTV terribly.)”

“I watch baseball on my laptop using the Sling player when I’m watching another program with my husband who detests sports.”

That’s just a sampling, but my unscientific survey says the supposed lack of live sports on the Internet isn’t really such a hindrance after all.