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Paul Allen's private jet is waiting on a nearby runway, but the
owner of the Portland Trail Blazers refuses to leave the
skylighted basketball arena in the hillside village and
advanced-technology lab that is his Seattle home. "I'm gonna
sink a three," Allen says as he takes up a position behind the
three-point line and begins launching one looping set shot after
another from beneath the tip of his great lumberjack's beard.

Earlier, as he strolled through the indoor tennis court and past
the pool and gymnasium in his own $7 million sports complex,
Allen averred in his quiet manner that he'd come a long way
since 1975. That was the year he teamed up with a high school
buddy named Bill Gates to found a tiny company called Microsoft,
a software venture dedicated to the then unlikely proposition
that someday everyone would have a computing machine.

Besides the thronelike easy chairs built into the wall along one
side of the regulation basketball court and the Santa Fe-style
high-desert oil paintings on the opposite wall, the
distinguishing features of Allen's arena are video monitors of
the sort that can be seen everywhere on his estate. Each of the
screens is electronically tethered to dozens of other monitors
and computer systems inside the Allen compound. Simply touching
a display on one of the screens can achieve high-speed access to
satellites circling the globe and therefore to just about any
sports event being broadcast anywhere in the world. Inside his
plush 20-seat theater, equipped with a 10-by-14-foot screen,
Allen can view ultra-high-definition video images that
less-privileged consumers won't be able to see for several
years. And if Paul Allen must miss a Blazer game because he's
out at sea on his 150-foot yacht, the team will tape the game at
a cost of around $30,000 and beam it to him as a digital stream
of private entertainment.

From any keyboard inside his home, Allen can also access
computers strewn throughout the vast web of his futuristic
business empire. He can send E-mail out to Blazer forward Buck
Williams or to coach P.J. Carlesimo's address in cyberspace.
"I'm not using these ---- computers, and I'm not readin' no
E-mail!" Carlesimo declared upon being presented with his laptop
shortly after he was hired by the Blazers last summer. But since
then P.J. has seen the light and joined his boss in what Allen
has long called "the wired world."

Allen, 42 and the 13th-richest American, has lately spent $1.2
billion of his $4.6 billion Microsoft-spawned fortune on a broad
array of digital satellites, wireless communications outfits,
multimedia software and communications hardware firms,
futuristic research companies and high-profile entertainment
ventures. Last March, Allen underscored the convergence of
Hollywood and the digital media age through his investment of
$500 million in DreamWorks SKG, the studio being assembled by
Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. And as
Allen's executives and research scientists work more subtly to
merge economic power, advanced technologies and big-time sports,
they are similarly defining a future in which the experience of
sports will surely be changed.

Aside from the Blazers, the "Paul Allen family" of enterprises
now includes the ticket purveyors of Ticketmaster, the sports
statisticians of STATS, Inc., and the technologists creating
on-line sports information services and CD-ROM products at
Seattle-based Starwave. One new Starwave product, the on-line
ESPNET SportsZone -- which offers stats, up-to-the-second scores
and even maps of ball fields showing where hits have just
landed-has been logging 1.5 million digital "visits" from wired
fans each month.

Down in Portland, Allen's Trail Blazer organization is managing
the construction of a $262 million sports arena called the Rose
Garden, which will be strewn with computers and wired with miles
of fiber-optic cable. The 70 luxury suites inside the Rose
Garden will be equipped with teleconferencing gear and be fed
channels full of computer-generated sports statistics. The
concourses of the Rose Garden will be draped with glowing video
screens, and Allen eventually wants to feed stats and replays
and stock quotes and weather reports and images of games being
played in other places to a tiny screen located at every seat.

Not unlike other team owners who have invested in new stadiums
and arenas over the past year, Allen is considering a
virtual-reality entertainment center next door to the Rose
Garden. An official Blazer "home page" already connects on-line
fans to the team's own Internet address. The Blazers' staff
includes a seasoned multimedia software developer assigned to
create sports products that the Blazers can sell to other teams.
"My mission," team president Marshall Glickman proclaimed early
in this past NBA season, "is to integrate Paul Allen's world of
computers and communications with my own world of sports."

During the "information superhighway" media frenzy that began
toward the end of 1993, a Seattle Times reporter imagined a day
in the not-too-distant future when a fan who got home late
during a Seattle SuperSonic game could digitally fast-forward
through the recorded action until he caught up with the
real-time telecast. After a Shawn Kemp dunk, the reporter
presumed, the viewer could click on the image of Kemp and call
up his latest stats, read stories about Kemp from newspapers all
over the world or connect with the Shawn Kemp Fan Club in
Indiana. Another click would automatically order Shawn Kemp
souvenirs or tickets to a coming Sonic game. The viewer could
change the camera angle from which he or she was seeing the
game, focusing on Kemp or watching the action from overhead.

And all of this, the newspaper article pointed out, could occur
within the boundaries of Allen's multimedia portfolio. "Once the
high-speed digital channel is wired into people's houses," Allen
says before finally nailing a three-point basket, "all of that
-- and more -- becomes pretty easy to do."

Early evidence indicates that many of the innovations now
understood only by technologists like Allen will intensify our
experience of spectator sports -- just as audio CDs have enhanced
the secondhand experience of a live symphony. The informational
and visual options available to fans sitting at home or in the
stands are already multiplying as sports become proving grounds
for advanced digital technologies. But these technologies also
raise a broad array of questions, from immediate concerns (Will
computerized gambling soon be inextricably linked with big-time
sports?) to new business issues (Will people pay for new
services?). Then there are longer-term issues: Will
computer-based technologies someday offer sportslike
entertainment so enthralling and convenient and highly
customized that games created from bits of the best of real
sports and bits of the best sports fantasies render live games

Technology has always altered the way sports are played and
observed. Scientific advances have been applied to sports
equipment and techniques: protective gear, the composition of
tennis rackets and golf clubs, high-tech training methods to
increase leg strength and foot speed. The advent of radio and
television offered new kinds of access to live events; for every
fan at a game, tens of thousands of others heard or saw the
event via machines.

Eventually technology allowed the power of a dunk to be repeated
and slowed and otherwise separated from the flow of a game -- and
some would argue that the essential focus of basketball has
changed in response. The half second it actually takes a decent
fastball to cross the plate can now become several seconds, and
that pitch can be replicated over and over again.

Now computer-driven video games are approaching a movie-theater
level of clarity; the best of the games are called "simulations"
because of the way they re-create the strategic demands and
sensuous experience of actual sports. "Our muscles tighten, our
pulses quicken, our palms sweat," one player of race car
simulation games recently typed into one of the many on-line
forums for simulated-sport fans. "It doesn't feel like sitting
at a computer at all. It isn't. It's a dashboard with a steering

There are already millions of obsessed fans of these simulations
who seem to care little for the real sports upon which the games
are based, and most of these fans are members of the new
generation that will soon be needed to fill stadiums and arenas.
If these young consumers care more about the moves, history and
personal predilections of a character called Shaq Fu in a
best-selling video game than they care about watching Shaquille
O'Neal play basketball, then is Shaq -- in the world of images
and consumer markets -- primarily a basketball player, or is he
a virtual kickboxer on a video screen?

During their first week on the market, $50 million worth of
Mortal Kombat II video cartridges and discs were sold to young
enthusiasts who also support six different magazines dedicated
to news about video games and heroes such as the Mortal Kombat
characters (the "players" or "guys," as they are known). If
there are more children in Sacramento who understand the
athletic prowess, personal history and signature moves of
Raiden, an athletic Mortal Kombat "thunder deity," than there
are kids who attend a King game over the course of a season,
what's the more popular sport among kids in Sacramento: Mortal
Kombat or NBA basketball?

"Right now the only thing holding back sports simulation
products is the level of reality that can be achieved," Allen
says. "But realistic athletelike or coachlike experiences that
you can share with others on-line, in a real-time environment,
are just sitting there over the horizon. The changes will go way
beyond games and sports to create a whole new realm of social
contact. Ten years ago people scoffed at the idea that everybody
would soon have a computer at home. I heard people laugh only a
few years ago at the idea that there would someday be software
just for kids."

"It's still at the preliminary stages," observes Ron Bernard,
the former Viacom executive hired by the NFL in 1993 to track
technological innovations as president of the league's new
venture division. "But I see no reason why someone won't soon be
able to experience what it's like to get the ball and try to run
it through the 1966 Green Bay Packer defense."

When team owners and league officials of the predigital past
began to worry that technology would soon render the distant
experience of big-time sports so satisfying that fans would
prefer to stay at home, where it was safe and warm, they built
living rooms called luxury boxes under the eaves of stadiums and
arenas all over the world. But what if the live images and
sounds beyond those boxes were suddenly amenable to perfect
duplication? And what if those crystalline images could be
changed so that a fan could watch a game from the viewpoint of
the third base coach or through the eyes of the pitcher? Once
images and information are digitized and can be piped from
computer to computer at high speed, all the video captured by
dozens of cameras can be merged and manipulated. Everything
digital becomes measurable, storable and accessible on demand.

The inevitability of some level of digital rendering of big-time
sports is assured by the rising class of technology and
communications-industry leaders who have lately come into
control of pro teams. Relative newcomers like Allen have stepped
up the pace of technological change because they tend to
understand how profitable it can be to come early to such a sea
change and how disastrous it can be if your enterprise is left
behind. Ted Turner, of Atlanta sports and satellite TV fame, has
been joined by Wayne Huizenga, who owns the Miami Dolphins, the
Florida Panthers and the Florida Marlins and who reaped a
fortune from his Blockbuster video chain. Cable TV companies and
entrepreneurs who pledged to build the 500-channel digital
future now own the New York Rangers and Knicks, the Golden State
Warriors, the Denver Nuggets and Nordiques, and soon the
Pittsburgh Pirates. The Seattle Mariners are owned by partners
whose money comes from Microsoft, Nintendo and the pioneer
cellular-phone corporation built by Craig McCaw.

"These techies who own the Mariners approach the business in a
very aggressive way," says Mariner vice president Randy Adamack.
"They ask thousands of questions. They never stop saying, 'Why
not?'" And they envisage sports as the realm that will spawn
those killer applications of technology and techniques that will
generate billions of dollars of new business and, as Allen puts
it, "change people's lives."

"The special language that guys like Paul Allen speak is hard
for me to grasp, but there's no doubt that they're bringing a
new culture of technology to sports," observes Phoenix Sun owner
Jerry Colangelo. "When we build our new baseball stadium in
Phoenix to house the baseball expansion team we announced last
spring, we're going to load the park up with interactive
technologies and virtual-reality game stations from which you
can still see the field. I want to build an interactive virtual
Cooperstown West into the stadium. I also want to have a
computerized dossier on every fan who comes into my park, so I
can know what technological services and experiences each
customer desires. This new technology means we can wire into
every pocketbook.

"By learning how to package sports we created a major American
industry," continues Colangelo, who prides himself on being a
"real" basketball guy among NBA owners -- an ex-player, ex-coach
and "ex-kid-who-mopped-up-the-sweat-under-the- basket." But, he
adds, "with the application of these new technologies, we can
move to another level. Soon there will be no limits to what we
can do."

Less than 10 miles from Allen's walled estate, a simple
stick-figure boxer bobs and weaves and dances and shuffles
across one of four screens in a windowless office on the campus
of Microsoft Corp. Devoid of a face or flesh, the boxer still
seems strangely real because of the entirely natural way he moves.

"It's called motion capture," says Microsoft executive Tony
Garcia. "Athletes come in and go through real motions that we
can digitally re-create. The images not only move like great
athletes, but they can suddenly drop down and move like tigers.
We are building a huge library of real movements. And we will
capture real faces and expressions too. We put little 'control
points' on people's faces that can be digitally tracked so we
can store an infinite number of expressions. Animations will
soon be so real that they won't resemble what we think of as

In another room a young program manager named Rich Choi fires up
a new baseball simulation game that Microsoft plans to release
by Christmas. At bat is a team selected by Choi that includes
Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Other, less illustrious
computerized players, like baseball-card figures come to life,
take to a bright-green field that is seen from an overhead
perspective. Choi punches at his keyboard, and Ruth goes up to
the plate. The screen suddenly displays the Babe's view of
Yankee Stadium as an announcer reports his lifetime batting
average over the digital cheers of the crowd. Choi orders up a
pitch, and Ruth hits it out of the park. A virtual crowd in the
stands goes wild.

"The goal is true-to-life experience," Choi says. "You can draw
your team from any of 12,500 pro ballplayers going back to 1901.
Each of them will perform according to 300 different statistical
categories programmed into the game. What happens depends on
who's pitching, who's hitting -- there are 35 different batting
statistics that come into play and even more pitching factors.
You can choose to play a day game or night game, on grass or
artificial turf. Both decisions affect the outcome. You can play
in all but one existing ballpark [Coors Field] and in 12 that
have been torn down, such as Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds.
Each stadium has its own ambient sound-the planes over Shea
Stadium and the subway near Yankee Stadium will be heard.

"This," Choi says, drawing in a breath, "is gonna be one cool

There are currently 35 million high-performance video-game
devices inside American homes. Nearly one of four products sold
by the handful of companies that dominate the $6 billion
video-game industry -- whose annual revenues are greater than
those of the top-100 pro sports franchises combined or those of
the movie industry at the box office -- is a simulated sports
game. And such video games have become ever more imbued with the
technicalities and intellectual allure of real sports. The Mark
Messier character known to millions of college kids who play in
video-game hockey leagues but have never been to a live game has
stickhandling habits and speed pretty close to those of the real

The creators of "cool" video games at Electronic Arts in San
Mateo, Calif., use pro scouts and team executives as consultants
to help them calibrate the reactions and moves of their
increasingly realistic digital renditions of real athletes. A
few of the models for video characters -- such as former
Cleveland Brown running back Eric Metcalf -- have phoned the
company to complain about the attributes programmed into their
digital selves in the game John Madden Football. Metcalf was
furious about his lack of speed.

One high-tech company called Sports Sciences recently increased
the you-are-there aspect of digital games by offering new games
that electronically link real baseball bats and golf clubs to
the on-screen play, thus requiring that players have actual
athletic skills. Increasingly realistic sports games have drawn
so many older consumers into a realm previously occupied chiefly
by teenage "gamers" that according to a recent survey of
electronics consumers under 50, video games were the most
desired electronic product in 1994. The most sophisticated
sports products created by Microsoft are aimed at a group of
buyers who make an average of $50,000 a year. Microsoft
marketers call them "loosely supervised executives."

"The technology advances coming down the pike just this year
will move these games out of the toy box for good," says Dan
Harnett of Acclaim Entertainment, which will soon release a
Frank Thomas baseball game replete with motion-captured Thomas
moves. "They will take their place in the world of home
entertainment now occupied by the TV and the stereo."

Analysts judging the economic value of high-tech games based on
sports perceive them as reusable assets, unlike live sports;
consumers return over and over again to the screen. At some
point fans are certain to ask themselves whether they would
rather spend $95 for a ticket to see the Timberwolves play
poorly for 48 minutes or $59 for a state-of-the-art
NBA-simulation game possessed of "infinite play value," as
technology executives put it.

Another key factor in the technological transformation of sports
is the statistic. Numerous computer-driven statistics firms now
serve the sports fan's mania for measurement. Allen's STATS,
Inc., based in Skokie, Ill., was recently heralded as one of the
500 fastest-growing private companies in the country.

It was the sports wonks at STATS, Inc. who began tracking
metrics such as the number of "stuffs" (times a running back is
stopped at the line). STATS now records the predilections of
umpires for certain calls. It tracks numbers of dropped passes
and records a welter of other helpful, embarrassing and
occasionally absurd facts. STATS analysts now sit in the press
box at every baseball game punching each pitch and play into a
laptop. The information is instantaneously available to anyone
willing to pay a $30 registration fee and 25 cents a minute in
on-line charges.

Anyone who thinks the tribal obsessions of sports nuts are best
observed in the Dawg Pound in Cleveland or up near the big Hess
sign at New Jersey's Meadowlands should probably spend some time
"lurking" in one of the "virtual communities" of fans who come
together for computerized on-line discourse. In CompuServe,
Inc.'s Sports Forums or America Online's Grandstand or SI's own
sites on CompuServe and the Internet, a visitor can spend hours
reading enraged exchanges about baseball's labor relations or
the rumored sexual preferences of a certain hockey player.

Allen's Starwave ESPNET SportsZone is just one part of the
Internet sports "community," actually a webwork of hundreds of
narrowly defined groups that have coalesced around "addresses"
like or, for American Hockey
League news and comment, "It's
sports talk radio without chatter about sports and teams you
don't care about," says Allen. "These are truly vertical groups
organized around a shared affinity."

"Our surveys indicate that 96 percent of the users are male, and
80 percent are between 18 and 34," says Tom Phillips, the
executive in charge of Starwave's on-line products. "And what's
really interesting is that nearly half of them are logging on
from the places where they work." The Starwave service allows
users to track the real-time progress of six or seven games at
once, but a variety of on-line organizations are moving toward
an era of "net-casting" in which fans working at a screen can be
notified when important events occur during a game.

In the realm of wireless delivery, subscribers to Motorola,
Inc.'s "sports pager" system can capture on a tiny pager screen
a constant flow of info that includes up-to-the-second pitching
changes and even wind direction on the ball field. For a
subscription fee that runs up to $50 per month, the pager also
offers late-breaking scores, injury reports and other news. A
series of ads for this service on ESPN inspired 10,000 people to
phone an 800 number for more information or to place orders.

As most providers of sports information understand, one of the
most technology-oriented sports consumers is the gambler --
precisely the consumer that industry executives and league
officials prefer not to talk about. Gamblers are now being
targeted by digital providers of up-to-the-minute scores and
injury reports. Notable business figures such as Lee Iacocca are
involved in high-tech interactive gambling start-ups, which is
not surprising in light of the nearly $400 billion that
Americans wager legally each year and the estimated $100 billion
bet illegally. Both figures exceed the estimated combined yearly
revenues from all the tickets, apparel, equipment and media
transactions connected to sports.

As new technologies blur what remains of the distinction between
sports and other forms of entertainment, the differences among
rooting, "playing along with the game" and betting will become
more difficult to discern. Data Broadcasting Corporation,
another wireless system that allows real-time financial and
sports news to be accessed by handheld and laptop devices,
recently purchased Computer Sports World. The acquisition will
allow Data Broadcasting clients to access horse race results,
handicap numbers and optional "casino odds" services (including
the latest Las Vegas lines) that can cost more than $400 per

Though cash winnings are not, as yet, part of the process, fans
attending San Francisco Giant games at Candlestick Park or Cub
and White Sox games in Chicago have tested handheld wireless
digital devices that allow them to record what they think will
happen during an upcoming play. Officers of NTN Communications
contend that patrons of American bars and taverns have played
their high-tech "play along" games, such as the ubiquitous QB1,
140 million times over the past 10 years.

QB1 allows a player holding an NTN controller or punching a
computer keyboard to guess what the quarterback will do next
during the broadcast of a real football game. The correct call
of a pass or a run (and to which side of the line) earns points
that can be tracked via NTN's satellite and computer

One NTN principal, a former Houston Oiler front-office exec
named Dan Downs, says he lost his house during NTN's start-up
period largely because for five years the NFL held up official
licensing of the right to play along with pro games while NTN
tried to prove to the league that QB1 was not a game of chance.
QB1 was played, but NTN reaped no revenue from the game until it
secured a license for "exclusive interactive data rights" to NFL
images and game broadcasts in 1987. NTN, which also has
relationships with pro hockey and Major League Baseball,
recently won renewal of its license to use NFL broadcasts. The
license was granted despite the existence of an NTN subsidiary
called IWN -- the Interactive Wagering Network -- that signed an
agreement with the Ontario Jockey Club to provide interactive
wagering on Canadian horse racing.

"Of course we're worried about all this," says Ed Desser of the
NBA, who strikes video-technology deals for the league. "There's
no doubt that technology can march along much faster than
legislators making laws to protect people. We have a lot at
stake here, because these advances address the legitimacy of our

Just as leagues and teams charged with protecting the sanctity
of sports will have to face the gambling issues raised by
technological changes, those who control the rights to the
images of top-level sports will similarly have to reassess the
value of their wares in the digital era. The dream that
interactive "video on demand" may spawn a multibillion-dollar
industry is almost two years old now, and pro sports imagery has
become a centerpiece of most of the futuristic demonstrations
offered at the digital trade shows that industry leaders attend
almost every week. However, pro leagues are just beginning to
analyze the implications of systems that will allow actual
sporting events, synthesized games, customized replays, shopping
opportunities and all sorts of related services to come to fans
through the same cable or phone line.

Last December the Time Warner Cable Company, a division of the
entertainment and media corporation that owns Sports
Illustrated, staged a gala unveiling of its long-awaited "full
service digital interactive multimedia network" in Orlando.
Hundreds of journalists and executives of the international
computer, cable and telecommunications companies that
contributed to the Time Warner system gathered in a hotel
ballroom to watch demonstrations of a hugely muscled TV system
designed to eventually allow consumers to download movies, video
games and shopping services from an on-screen menu.

In another room an SI demonstration offered a glimpse of a
future "sports on demand" video service. The screen of the
prototype flashed logos of the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, Major
League Baseball and the NCAA. The plan is for customers to
eventually use their remote-control clickers to access games,
customized and uncustomized stats, special interview shows,
displays of sports paraphernalia, simulated games and a long
list of live games that are segmented across all divisional and
geographic boundaries. The prototype clip segments could be
sorted and resorted as This Week's Best, Today's Game or Team by

"One of the things I don't understand," said one NHL executive,
"is why they think we'll just give them the rights to film
footage. I think the leagues are beginning to see we can do this
stuff for ourselves."

"We believe they will sell it," Time Warner's VP/Content for the
Full Service Network Hal Wolf replies. "Because this interactive
system will offer the leagues a year-round television presence
and lots of marketing opportunities."

"The way I look at it," said Desser of the NBA, the league that
has been most wary of making deals with interactive game or new
media companies, "we're in a position to pick the winners of
this race."

The NHL is gearing up to compete with high-tech stat companies.
Though close to 40,000 pages of handwritten, data-rich NHL "game
sheets" going back to 1917 still lie unscanned and unmarketed in
boxes in Toronto and Montreal, the league has been developing
new statistical products that will track each shot, each check
and each pass -- much as STATS, Inc. and Starwave track pitches
and hits.

The NFL's new-enterprise group struck a particularly
entrepreneurial deal with DirecTV, the new digital broadcast
satellite company. The satellite start-up delivered games during
the last five weeks of the season. A Cincinnati Bengal fan in
Florida -- assuming he had a $700 satellite dish the size of a
pizza hanging outside his window -- had access to no fewer
Bengal games than a fan in Cincinnati. The NFL was able to
capture most revenues from subscribers to the DirecTV sports
service, save for a small agency fee (a full season package of
NFL games on DirecTV costs $139).

In baseball it appears that the new technologies and a few
progressive teams are way ahead of the league. Efforts to find
out who had granted Major League Baseball play-along rights to
Interactive Network, a beleaguered company that competes with
NTN Communications, elicited an immediate desire on the part of
one MLB executive to get off the phone. Subsequently his office
sent a fax bearing a quote from Ken Schanzer, CEO of The
Baseball Network: "Major League Baseball is positioning itself
to explore new alliances and innovations on the information
superhighway. We've gathered information and knowledge and are
aggressively pursuing opportunities to maximize the benefits of
the new technology for Baseball."

MLB officials in charge of on-demand or interactive baseball
products seem barely aware of technological experiments like
Mariners Fast Forward, in which three-hour Mariner ball games
are compressed into one-hour rebroadcasts -- including
commercials -- that still capture all of the game's pitches, hits
and plays. "They need to understand that these technologies
offer ways to spin a silk purse from a sow's ear," says one of
the inventors of the Mariners Fast Forward techniques, Rob
Glaser, who is a part owner of the team and a former Microsoft
honcho. "In an increasingly fast-paced society, baseball has
gone the wrong way. The average game has gotten around 35
minutes longer over the past 20 years. Add to that the fact that
West Coast teams play most of their games at 5 p.m., and the
value of a same-day compressed and time-shifted game seems
obvious. This is just one of hundreds of ways that technology
can change the status quo."

Late last year, in a movie theater located near Detroit and in
another near Los Angeles, two groups of guests watched a
super-high-definition live telecast of a basketball game between
the Detroit Pistons and the Los Angeles Lakers. Walid Saba, a
senior designer at Ford Motor Co. who spends his days in front
of state-of-the-art video monitors, reported that the Pacific
Bell Cinema of the Future images of the game had an intensity
that pushed viewers back in their seats. "The colors were just
amazingly vivid," he said. "The outline of the ball was so
clear, it looked 3-D. And since the high-definition cameras have
a much larger frame, you got a rectangular picture of the whole

It was while sitting at a 49er game that Rich Mizer, the
engineer responsible for the Pacific Bell HDTV (high-definition
television) venture, got the idea for a theater-based system
that uses fiber-optic cable, video compression, other advanced
television techniques and CD-quality audio. "I'd get to sit on
the bench for some games," Mizer says. "During that one game I
found myself thinking that there must be some way to technically
capture the intensity of being this close. The NFL told us to
try HDTV on a college game first, so three years ago we did the
East-West Shrine Game. Since then we've done tests with the
World Cup and the 1995 NBA All-Star Game."

The digital HDTV technologies used in the Pac Bell system are
the result of a complicated alliance of several American
corporations. Digital HDTV networks will have the capacity to
carry statistics and data files alongside images so stunning
that the viewer feels as if he is staring at the action through
a clean picture window. Delivery of HDTV images currently
entails huge costs, as well as bandwidth capacities and
home-based hardware not yet available outside certain
electronics laboratories -- and Paul Allen's home.

"But HDTV will definitely sell when it's ready to be deployed,"
says Desser. "HDTV puts you right there. Since all of the camera
and home-TV equipment currently in use will eventually be
replaced, I'd bet that in 10 years digital HDTV will be common."

"The enhancements to sports viewing were the original excuse for
developing HDTV," says Andrew Lippman, the associate director of
MIT's Media Lab. "And once you can get all these high-definition
television cameras pointed at the same event, all you have to do
is digitally combine what's coming from those cameras to create
a three-dimensional viewing space. Then you can pick out any
seat in the stadium and look at the action from there. You can
travel with the ball or see the game from the quarterback's
point of view. With the right display system you will be able to
look around inside the picture as you would if you were at the
real event. We're still a long way from doing that, but that's
where we're headed."

There have already been several non-HDTV interactive-television
experiments that allowed viewers to change channels to access
different cameras aimed at the same sporting event. One company,
ACTV, has installed a system in Montreal that allows individuals
to select instant replays or choose new channels that
concentrate on the moves of star players. But the tests have
generally revealed that many consumers find that seasoned
television directors do a better job selecting the best view.
Even so, once all the sights and sounds of a game can be piped
to a viewer so that a turn of his head will change what he sees,
the nature of the transmitted experience will be completely

A tiny company in Sausalito, Calif., called Warp California has
developed a nifty digital video system called Virtual
TeleViewer, which uses a fish-eye lens to capture a
hemispherical image that wraps around the camera, encompassing a
full 180-degree view. A computer then corrects the distortions
around the edges of the fish-eye. By turning his or her head
inside display goggles or a helmet -- or by manipulating a
joystick -- a viewer can look around inside the huge image as if
seated where the camera is actually stationed.

"The process of going digital means connecting every aspect of a
given game to computers, and once you're there -- once you have
access to the bit stream," Lippman says, referring to the
electronic flow of zeros and ones that are the lifeblood of
these emergent machines and techniques, "you can walk past the
threshold and through the door."

The president of the Portland Trail Blazers, dressed in low-tech
protective goggles and a hard hat, bounds along the girders and
concrete buttresses of what will be the Rose Garden. "We're
going to have a next generation, high-resolution Astrovision
screen and scoreboard in the middle of the arena," says
Glickman. "There will also not be a single vista that isn't full
of video displays -- except in the bathrooms, where we'll have
radio feeds. And the computers we've ordered for this place will
talk to God.

"With a payroll of around $27 million," Glickman continues as he
stands in the concrete-and-metal enclosure of a future luxury
box, "I have to look to grow this business by making things
happen here in the Rose Garden -- that and by developing all of
the technological possibilities opened up by being connected to
Paul Allen. Eventually you have to acknowledge that there are
some mathematical limits to growing the sport itself."

Back at the Trail Blazer offices in downtown Portland, Glickman
walks into an office to look over the shoulder of Carl
Steinhilber, the Blazers' multimedia designer. Steinhilber fires
up his new Game Ops Commander software, a program that allows
customization of stadium and arena video and audio scoreboard
entertainment. A cartoonish character wearing a red headband --
obviously meant to represent Trail Blazer forward Cliff Robinson
-- begins to move and dance with some of the verisimilitude
demonstrated via "motion capture" up at Microsoft.

Steinhilber's new program offers the kind of customized
individual control made possible by the next wave of technology.
In a sense such digital systems hark back to bygone experiences
of big-time sports, when games were adorned only by those
fantasies and statistical records created by viewers in the
stands, by the odd loudspeaker announcement or by a running
commentary supplied by the drunken fan in the next row. With the
cost of tickets and premium cable feeds rising and the cost of
digital technology falling, these inventions might actually give
everyone that prized seat on the bench.

Or perhaps the process of electronic customization will create a
new fan of the future -- a shrouded figure sitting alone in a
room, his head enveloped in one of those virtual-reality
helmets. Perhaps the tiny screens up close to the fan's eyes
will flash vivid rearrangements of sports culled from the
electronic flow, spectacular stuff jacked in from the bit
stream. The game will be the most thrilling sports spectacle the
fan has experienced since the last time he lowered the helmet
over the rest of the day, since the thrills have been abstracted
from the fan's own fantasies and the specific passions that draw
him to sports . . . or whatever this hybrid experience of sports
has come to be called.

Perhaps the lone indication of the viewer's connection to sports
fans of the past will be the plastic tube running up to the beer
can affixed to the top of the device.

The technologies involved, to use current techie parlance, will
be nothing if not "cool." But will the result be better ... or
even good? For all of his ability to stay at home and suck down
superclear, big-screen images of sporting events happening
anywhere in the world, what Allen loves most is actually
attending a Blazer game. Earlier this past season he flew down
to Portland to catch a game against the Utah Jazz in the company
of some of his senior employees from Starwave, sports nuts to a
man. They sat in Allen's jet, poring over some new customized
statistics that tracked the performance of Jazz forward Karl
Malone against each NBA team in light of all sorts of
circumstances, such as travel schedules and number of days of
rest. Everyone was impressed by Malone's consistency.

At the game Allen took his regular seat directly below the
basket, and at the opening tip-off he turned into the basketball
maniac Portlanders occasionally see on the news, leaping around
during replays. Unlike most team owners, who entertain
associates in a distant box, Allen hoists his considerable frame
out of his folding chair and jumps into the air, screaming at
the top of his lungs. The sweat from the play a few feet in
front of him wets him down, and the billionaire in a rugby shirt
and Dockers turns to the crowd and exhorts it to join him in
stepping up the frenzy.

"People will always want a live and communal connection to an
event," Allen says. "There will be a zillion beautiful replays
to choose from, and people will still want to be there. The
computer still has a ways to go. We don't have software yet that
can, for instance, make judgments. We inch closer, but that
could still be a hundred years away. I really do believe the
intensity of it all will eventually be captured by technology,
but for me the seat under the basket will probably always be the
best place to be."

COLOR ILLUSTRATION:ILLUSTRATIONS BY ANDREW DAMON [photos of football, golf ball, hockey puck, soccer ball, baseball, and basketball repeated over a circuit board background]