As the world barely escaped Y2K "incineration" on Jan. 1, 2000, the sports media landscape remained an ordered world. Games started when leagues ordained, broadcasts began when networks decreed, advertisers aspired for select events like the Super Bowl, and newspapers and television tidily summed up the spectacle at their leisure. The media/consumer paradigm was decidedly top-down.
As the 2000s come to an end next week, that flow chart has been upended. The explosion of new media forms and delivery platforms since Y2K fizzled has left the consumer astride the information highway. Leagues, networks and the rest of the shell-shocked media are scrambling to structure their products to accommodate the new realities brought on by PVR, TMZ, iPhone and Wii.
Meanwhile, the rapacious spawn of the Internet has redefined sports broadcasting. Here are the most significant signposts in that takeover from the decade just ending:
*Tiger Woods. The media arc of the decade was played out as the brilliant American golfer was raised to superstardom by conventional media, then brought low by the emergence of the rogue blogosphere. While politicians, actors and business tycoons had already fallen afoul of the National Enquirer, TMZ and Deadspin, Woods was the first athlete to have his domestic life ransacked by the new "journalism" created by the blogosphere. Mainstream media chased the lead of the former fringe outlets as they rolled out the story to a waiting public. The media world was turned upside down. Within weeks, a new TMZ Sports website was announced. As the new decade begins, athletes are now grist for the paparazzi, and the food chain of sports journalism is scrambled beyond recognition.
*PVR, time shifting, on demand. Call it what you will, but the ability of viewers to dictate viewing patterns, eliminate traditional advertising and customize content has shaken the foundation of the economic model that's existed since TV was a an eight-inch black-and-white screen. The new technologies, flogged by cable and satellite companies, have pirated their own business in a manner that VCR never achieved.
When the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver begin, viewers will be able to structure delivery of content, able to see every event at a time of their choosing. More and more of this will be delivered via Internet and portable devices, further eroding the footprint of the cable/ satellite carriers. This has empowered viewers, but left broadcasters baffled at how to successfully monetize the advertiser's message.
The wreckage of the CanWest/Global empire, and the nasty fight between CTV/ CBC/Global against cable/satellite carriers, are the most outward symptoms of distress within the TV system. Uncertainty has sparked the sale or closing of local stations and the shedding of thousands of once desirable jobs within the TV sports industry. Newspapers folded or drastically curtailed costs. One certainty: The story of how long-standing media giants adapt to this reality will be a key feature of the next decade.
*HD/3D. At the dawn of this decade, high-tech resolution was restricted to home movies and video games. Sports and news remained a captive of standard definition. Ten years later, the widespread availability of plasma/HD televisions has pushed the quest for better resolution into the conventional TV world. Virtually unknown in 1999, HDTV and Dolby sound are the benchmarks for TV home viewing. And 3D is on the way. Sports, with its visual dynamic, propelled the technology as innovations were launched at the Super Bowl, Olympics and other events.
*Bandwidth compression. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, networks continued to throw thousands of employees and billions of dollars at producing the Games onsite in Australia. As the Vancouver Winter Games await, bandwidth compression has transformed broadcasting by delivering a vast number of signals in a single portal. Networks now produce significant portions of premium sports events live off monitors in their offices back home. Compression is also feeding the portable viewing revolution, delivering broadcast quality to hand-held iPhones and other devices. The televised image of sports has become the reality.
*Appointment viewing. In 2004-05, the NHL closed its business to achieve financial parity with a salary cap. As the decade ends, it looks as though the league may have headed in the wrong direction. Networks such as ESPN, FOX and TSN still purchase the bulky inventories of regular-season games from the NHL, NBA and MLB; increasingly, they're demanding more appointment viewing such as the NHL's Winter Classic. The European soccer model - superteams playing in restricted divisions with multiple feature games - is the new paradigm. Parity is becoming passé; so are 30- and 32-team leagues. Look to see networks demand that the big-market dogs eat more as the next decade rolls out.