Cameras on players and officials. Social media being integrated more deeply into on-field and on-court play. All while teams and municipalities keep investing billions in the live experience, and traditional TV ratings of TV sports continue to blow past all records.
That was the puzzle at the heart of the opening session of Thursday's inaugural Sports Business Forum during CES. The event brought together a high-level cross-section, from Mark Cuban to Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé to LeBron James manager Maverick Carter, to discuss technology’s impact on sports. In the kickoff session, Turner host and play-by-play man Ernie Johnson quizzed Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
Some edited highlights:
Johnson: A lot of managers out there would probably prefer not to see [Houston Astros shortstop] Carlos Correa at the end of the dugout putting out a tweet in the 8th inning. But if a guy pitched the night before….or he’s on the DL, could you see that kind of thing in the regular season?
Manfred: Here’s the larger issue that you raise, and it’s an issue for all sports. What fans want is not just to watch the game now. While they’re watching, they probably have some other device going. That other device is ideally suited to provide access beyond the game that they’re seeing on the screen. Social media is an opportunity to provide our fans with that kind of access. Where you draw the line between a guy who’s out of the game now who offers his thoughts on what’s happened, that’s one side of the line. The other side of the line is Carlos Correa tweeting from the bench. I wouldn’t see that in the immediate future.
Johnson: So no [tweets like] ‘we’re really getting jobbed on the strike zone.’ So, Rob, what is your Twitter handle?
Manfred: I do have one. But I don’t tweet from it, I watch tweets.
Johnson: I should try that. Do you have one?
Silver: @nba. [Laughs] … I agree with Rob. We very much encourage our players to engage in social media. … But we have to separate what happens within the four corners of the court from their other free time. It is a very hard line to draw. Interestingly, and this relates directly with what we’re seeing here at CES, what we’re looking at is more the information that will come more passively from the athletes during competition. So as the technology gets better to allow “liking” athletes during games, even placing cameras on them. … Of course, we have to deal with the Players Association on these things and make sure that it’s reasonable. But there’s an incredible hunger for this information. At an NBA game, the announcers sit courtside, they’re hearing all sorts of things that fans don’t have access to, and they’re reporting it. I’ve had this conversation with our players and coaches. There can’t really be an expectation of privacy any more when you go into these arenas.
Manfred: A lot of the information that we have can be very useful to fans to demystify the game and track the movements of players. The purpose of products like that is so that the average fan understands that when a center fielder makes a great catch, it’s a product of the kind of athleticism that most of us don’t possess. That sort of information, we figure, will draw people deeper into the game.
Johnson: If you increase access so much, or if you have little cameras on everybody, don’t you have to be so careful that it doesn’t pick up some kind of background noise that can destroy someone’s life?
Silver: The answer is yes, we have to be incredibly careful, whether that happens through delays of a few seconds or some kinds of filters we use. But the world has changed. … Because of the quality of cameras, phones, devices that people now have, virtually anywhere you go, including for all of us, you have to be aware that anything you say or do could get picked up.
Manfred: We have struggled through the years telling the Players Association about [broadcast] delays and microphones and cameras and where could they be, and they’re important. But technology is kind of making those issues irrelevant. Behavior has to change. The more dangerous form of access is the access we don’t control, and that’s the fans.
Johnson: You’ve had microphones on umpires. Have you ever thought about putting a camera on an umpire?
Manfred: That’s another place where technology has really changed people. When I started, years ago, with negotiating the umpires, they wanted no part of instant replay. They felt that it undermined their control of the game on the field. Our game is a little different; we play every day, 162 games a year. The technology that we didn’t control became so good—ESPN, Turner and our partners would replay what happened the night before, it would embarrass the umpires, and so they came around to the idea that, "I can’t beat ‘em, I gotta join ‘em.” And now we have to have replay. The angles that help us the most with instant replay are fixed angles. The difficulty with a body camera, and we’ve actually played around with it, is you get movement in the video feed that usually doesn’t help you very much.
Johnson: Do you have any concern that the game will get so good from the comfort of your own home that you have no reason to go [see games live]?
Silver: I don’t think so. … Our teams have done a great job of creating something entirely different from what you’d get at home or on a phone or tablet. … Season ticket sales are at an all-time high in the history of the league. Our attendance, in the last three to four years, we have set new attendance records. People are living these virtual lives. They crave the ability to be around people. These are modern town halls of sorts. A lot of our institutions are becoming weaker. Studies show that religious affiliations have become weaker over the last few decades. These sports bonds, that tribalism that comes around supporting your team, are becoming stronger.
Manfred: When you think about baseball, I always try to keep two numbers in mind. We sell 75 million tickets. We sell another 41 or 42 million for minor league baseball every year. There’s something about our game that has a social aspect to it. The pace of the game, the feel of the game, is different than other entertainment products.