My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana looks at the future of sports TV with ESPN’s Megacast. I know two people who weren’t fans.
I have two teenage sons who serve as my de facto lab for assessing trends in sports TV.
Matt, a 19-year-old college freshman, and Sam, a 17-year-old high school junior, are in the wheelhouse for sports programmers. They are sports obsessed. Our TVs have games or ESPN blasting nearly 24/7.
So I pay close attention to what they watch. Early on, I could see them gravitating to the Blackhawks when they were just beginning their run in 2009. It was a sign hockey could become huge in Chicago, which indeed has occurred.
Even though they are avid Cubs and White Sox fans, you couldn’t pay them to sit through a marathon World Series game. Their friends feel the same way. Granted it is a small sample size, but it seems to be a clear indicator that the younger demo is checking out on baseball.
So with that in mind, the three of us, plus Sherman the dog (think Sherman & Peabody), settled in to watch the college football championship game Monday night. Quickly, I started to bang on the remote, finding the various channels for ESPN’s Megacast presentation.
We watched a few minutes of the coaches in the Film Room; a snippet of Michael Wilbon and others eating sandwiches in the somewhat bizarre “Voices”; and something called “Off The Ball,” which I couldn’t quite figure out.
I figured my sons would enjoy all the additional viewing options for Monday’s game. After all, they are the essence of the short-attention span generation. It feels as if their cell phones are permanently glued to their fingers.
However, Matt became somewhat exasperated as I diverted from the conventional coverage early in the second quarter to check out the Megacast.
“Dad,” Matt said. “Would you stop it?”
“What do you mean?” I responded.
“Just keep the game on ESPN,” he said.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “This Megacast is aimed for you guys. You don’t want to watch it?”
“No, we don’t care about (the Megacast),” he said. “We just want to watch the game.”
There you have it, ESPN research. The young demo in the Sherman household preferred old school on Monday.
Clearly, the dynamic is changing for how the networks will present games, especially big games. The days of one screen, one telecast are coming to an end.
In fact, they already are done when you consider that most sports viewers, including those from my generation, watch games while following reaction on social media, along with monitoring various websites.
ESPN took it to another level offering 12 different options (including radio and Internet) to consume Monday’s game. When you have as many platforms as ESPN, you might as well use them, right? While I couldn’t get into watching Wilbon eat, I did like the Film Room with the various coaches breaking down the game in a way that went far beyond Kirk Herbstreit’s analysis on ESPN. However, I’m not sure why ESPN insisted using the large part of the screen to show a coach talking while the live action was relegated to a small portion in the upper corner.
Despite my son’s complaints, I persisted on switching back and forth between the game and the Megacast until midway through the third quarter. Then sensory overload set in. Eventually, I found the banter on the other outlets distracting, if not mentally taxing. It almost felt like trying to watch a movie while simultaneously listening to the critics debate the director’s work.
Finally, I had enough. The game was so good, I just wanted to hear Chris Fowler and Herbstreit on the call. My night with Megacast was done.
There’s little question that this whole multi-platform approach is a work in progress. Recently, Comcast SportsNet Chicago experimented in presenting Bulls and Blackhawks games in a quad-box format on a secondary channel. The regular feed was in one corner with different perspectives, including a player isolation, comprising the other three views. In theory, it seemed interesting, but I found it difficult to follow the game with four screens in one.
The most promising of the out-of-box presentations was CBS giving viewers the option of hearing home-team calls on other channels during last year’s Final Four. It was entertaining to hear the emotions of biased announcers. Hopefully, CBS will do it again.
Other alternative concepts surely are in the works. As with anything, viewers will require an adjustment period to get used to changes. Remember the initial uproar when Fox introduced the score box into a game telecast? Too distracting, people said. Now it seems crazy to think of a telecast without a score box.
The potential is vast and likely staggers the imagination. Sports on TV in 2025 definitely will be different. Provided, of course, TV still exists.
Ultimately, though, it always will be about being able to follow the game. In my house last Monday, the younger demo weighed in: They voted for the game. The future can wait.