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What is the future of sports broadcasts?

4/15/2013
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

In the sports television world, bigger and clearer is better, and usually all that matters. Those features reflect our modern-day viewing psyche, where the size and the look of the game are what consumes our attention.

Also, when we have family and friends over to watch the big game, we sometimes lose track of the presentation details; we're more attuned to what's at stake: the drama unfolding and whether our team can pull it out in the end.

But how often do we really think about peeling back the layers and thinking, Hmmm, what if the network did this or that?

Consider this: Behind the scenes, conversations and research regarding new technologies in sports broadcasting have been happening for more than a decade, and they're continuing as we speak -- some without an answer (yet). ESPN Playbook decided to explore some of them, as well as offering our own ideas.

Here are 10 things that will and could happen in the future:

1 ) 4K and 8K televisions

Earlier this year at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, some manufacturers showed off their new 4K televisions, also known as ultra HDTV sets," which have four times the resolution of current HDTVs. While HDTVs have 2,000 pixels across left to right and top to bottom, and 1,080 lines of video, 4Ks are 4,000 pixels wide by 2,160 lines of video. Simply put, to really see the benefit of them, you need one of the larger TVs.

4Ks are still in their early development, and it's not yet clear how the Internet and cable companies are going to handle the new TV sets. There's not even a Blu-ray player developed for them. But through initial testing at ESPN, for example, 4Ks will be able to improve camera work on the sidelines during a game, and, therefore, deliver a better home-viewing experience.

"We are playing with 4Ks right now to do our storytelling better in standard high definition," said Chuck Pagano, ESPN's executive vice president and chief technology officer. "Let's say we're capturing a field image of one-third of the home field for the New York Giants on first-and-10. A 4K camera with that amount of resolution can then actually dynamically zoom and pan, without the camera moving, to show better detail of how the play goes, or how the quarterback is thinking, because we have higher resolution. That's one early application of the new technology."

So how much does an 84-inch 4K TV go for? Try $25,000. Five years from now, Pagano predicts, expect to shell out even more money for an 8K.

"They'll be four times the resolution of 4K, or 16 times the resolution of what we have right now on our high definitions," he said. "Eight-K TVs are almost 8,000 pixels wide by 4,300 lines of video. There's a lot of innovation hanging into the TV space with new formats, which are going to require more bandwidth, and they're going to require new facilities and technologies. We want to create great sports-related visual content, and we're working with our vendors to try to figure out how to get that accomplished. That's the future."

2 ) 3-D viewing

ESPN's 3-D technology debuted for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and since then more close-up sporting events, like golf, have been presented in 3-D. But it's still an emerging field. Looking ahead, 4Ks will be better equipped to handle 3-D. In fact, there are a couple of vendors currently showing off TV sets that actually flip two frames of full video creating a 3-D image -- and you don't even need to wear those goofy glasses to see the effect.

3 ) Holographic viewing

When Barack Obama was first elected president in November 2008, popular rapper and producer will.i.am, who was a big supporter of his political campaign, was beamed into CNN's studio for an interview as if he was in "Star Trek." The technology was called holographic imaging, and it's something that's being explored now for sports TV viewing, where the action would be projected in front of you as if you were actually in the arena.

While a holographic TV in the household is still years away, it's currently being researched in the electrical engineering field. For example, NHK, the Japanese governmental broadcast and research organization in Tokyo, has a lab that's completely focused on holographic imaging.

If 4Ks and 8Ks adapt well in the marketplace, holographic viewing might get a jump start. That's because those TVs have very high image-based transmittal and processing, and they could reposition the signal to show those holograms. If it gets to that point, video games could also be consumed via holographic imaging.

4 ) Various announcing teams

Chances are you thought to yourself during a game, "Man, what the TV announcers are saying is so basic!" So what if for major broadcasts -- not for every game -- you could alternate announcing teams from novice to intermediate to advanced?

How could that potentially work? For that specific game, there would be perhaps three different channels airing it, each featuring a different two-man team of announcers and a varying level at which the game is discussed and presented. Then you could flip to your preferred channel based on your interest or knowledge of the sport.

With next-level sports data becoming more readily available, fans are getting smarter and want deeper-dive information. Of course, there's always the general viewer who doesn't mind the depth of reporting; he or she simply wants to watch the action. That's why there could be the announcing options.

Perhaps the most feasible way to pull this off is to have intermediate- and advanced-level announcer teams for online broadcasts on the network's website, and the TV broadcast could still satisfy the general viewer. ESPN could have the most potential for three teams of announcers because of its multiple channels.

5 ) Different live and instant-replay camera angles

About 10 years ago, a cable company in Montreal called Videotron experimented with an eight-camera customization system for a Canadian Football League game, and viewers at home could actually choose which angle from which to watch the action.

Could that happen with mainstream broadcasts? The biggest problem deals with a precious commodity called bandwidth; most cable systems don't have enough to handle that kind of high-level camera work. But how interesting would it be to focus on a specific player, or watch a football or baseball game behind the quarterback or catcher to see the full view -- and not just in instant replay? In addition, instant replay angles could be customized, the way it is in a video game.

6 ) More miked-up situations

Who wouldn't want more of this in every game? The limits are based on resources, which is why national broadcasts (e.g. ABC, ESPN and TNT) can mike up players more often. But to make it more feasible, perhaps the arenas themselves could add sound capabilities near the team benches to record what coaches and players are saying during the action and timeouts. Overall, it would be great if there was more of a voice from those involved in the game to complement the announcing and environment -- not just from halftime and postgame interviews.

7 ) More customized music

If you checked out ESPN The Magazine's music issue earlier this year, you know how much music is intertwined these days with pro and collegiate sports. (See: the "Harlem Shake" craze from just weeks ago.)

In addition to music evolution through social media, there has been an increasing number of teams hiring their own DJs to customize in-arena songs during games. But most TV networks still haven't picked up on the popular musical trend. Sometimes arenas plug an artist coming to town for a concert on the Jumbotron, but there could be more integration with the broadcast itself. While occasional national broadcasts ping a popular song over the game's highlights, the local ones don't incorporate enough of their nearby entertainers to deliver on-air content, for example.

Highlighting the players' interest in music -- perhaps featuring one of their playlists in every game -- should also be incorporated. Many fans would love to know what their favorite players are listening to, as well as which musical artists support their home team.

8 ) Enhanced sports science capabilities

You're likely familiar with ESPN's "Sport Science," which highlights all sorts of athletic measurements from top players (including speed, agility, power, strength and acceleration). How about more of that during broadcasts, like showing how high LeBron James gets for a dunk, how fast Russell Westbrook drives downcourt or how quickly Adrian Peterson makes a cut through the defense? And those measurements could come with comparisons. (For example, who jumps higher or with more force: James or Blake Griffin?) In addition, the data could include things like the arc of a basketball shot, the trajectory of a home run or how close a defender comes to preventing a potentially game-winning play.

Tennis might be the best sport these days to incorporate measurements into broadcasts, from serve speeds to ground covered during a point. But there is more data research currently going into other sports, especially involving the performance of athletes.

The biggest obstacle, however, is access. Years ago, ESPN looked at putting a device in an NFL helmet and putting sensors on the athletes' bodies to track their heart rate, blood pressure, pulse and other measurements during a game. The Arena Football League was a testing ground, but privacy issues shut down athletes.

Perhaps with access becoming more transparent through social media, and the technology world shrinking, with daily activities becoming more public, it could open the dialogue again.

9 ) Increased social media integration

"Tweet the announcer! Text your answer to this number!" Across sports, social media is obviously the new frontier, and everyone is still trying to figure it out. Broadcasters are focused on finding ways to bring fans closer to the action and players. It's considered an important strategy to engage sports fans even more with their favorite sports and athletes.

While Twitter and Facebook have found their footprint, Instagram could be next. Perhaps there will be more fan photo contests featured during broadcasts, or more documentation of players' lives on and off the court through galleries and personal reflections.

10 ) Computer-esque clickable options

Imagine this: You're at home watching a game, a commercial for Papa John's comes on and you realize you want some. But instead of trying to track down the pizza spot's local phone number and going through all of the ordering steps, you can use your remote to click the TV screen and punch in what you want right then and there. And the best part? The broadcast, based on your proximity, already knows where the closest Papa John's is to you.

Two industry experts believe the technology is achievable. The Papa John's idea is one that represents a bigger picture: watching a broadcast that's clickable -- whether it's placing food orders, changing viewing options or getting additional information about the game. With computer and Internet integration being investigated, it could eventually lead to commercials and engagement correlating to your specific city or zip code.

Years ago, there were actually trials based around this concept, but they didn't materialize. Whether or not the world is ready is the key question.

What would you like to see more of? Have your own idea? Leave us your comments below.