THE BLOG
05/09/2012 05:11 pm ET | Updated Jul 09, 2012

The Digital Ballpark Is Here to Stay

It's an early May night at Comerica Part in Detroit as Jhonny Peralta steps to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning. With the Tigers trailing by a run and Gerald Laird on first base, Peralta fouls off the first two pitches he sees before hammering the third for a game-winning two run homer. Peralta crosses home plate and the Tigers defeat the Chicago White Sox 5-4.

In addition to the 33,615 people who were in attendance at the game (at least those that stayed) it's a safe bet that this action was also being monitored remotely across the Internet by fans of both teams, fantasy baseball managers and gamblers via the use of a computer, smartphone or tablet. A 2010 Burst Media study revealed that more than one third of the sports fans surveyed cited the Internet as "the best resource for sports-related news and information." Almost 60 percent of fans use the Internet to check scores and stats and 47.4 turn to the web for sports-related news stories and commentary. Considering that study was conducted more than 18 months ago and the Internet continues to grow like it's on PEDs, it's a slam dunk those numbers have risen.

Sports, at their core, are activities that people engage in individually or with other people. Whether played by professionals, amateurs or kids in the backyard, sports are physical actions that take place in the real world. However the world of sports and sports media is becoming ever more entrenched and entwined with the digital world. Through an ever-increasing number of websites, apps, and social networking platforms, the Internet has made the digital world as much a part of sports as the physical one.

Though websites for checking box scores, managing fantasy teams and placing wagers online are probably old hat at this point for most tech-savvy sports fans (and digitally-inclined gamblers), there are myriad other ways sports fans can stay constantly connected with sports. The next generation of websites and mobile apps are being created faster than a Felix Hernandez fastball. Fans can now link directly with each other to share opinions, get cheaper tickets, interact during games or even band together to petition the very leagues they care about. It's a whole new ballgame and sports organizations and companies both new and old are adjusting to avoid being left on the bench.

Founded in 1981, STATS originally tracked baseball statistics but quickly expanded to other sports (possibly because not everyone cares about who the last left-handed pitcher to throw a no-hitter on Memorial Day in the rain while wearing mismatched socks was), and has grown to be one of the largest sports information, content and statistical analysis companies in the world. With a client list that boasts organizations including Google, the NFL, Yahoo, the NBA and ESPN, STATS looms large in the digital sports landscape.

The company took advantage of the Internet explosion of the 1990s and is looking to do the same thing today. "It allowed for faster distribution and more immediate use of our data and content -- greatly enhancing its value," Marketing and Communications Director Nick Stamm wrote in an email.

Now, with mobile devices and apps currently en vogue, STATS has adapted the way that it distributes its content once again. "Applications are here to stay. They provide a fantastic vehicle for sharing information," Stamm said. Not wanting to lose touch with the owned-a-cellphone-since-elementary-school-generation, STATS has also turned to Facebook and Twitter to aggregate its content about product information, company news and upcoming events . "Social media has become a crucial part of our company's branding and communication efforts," Stamm said. "They are a great tool for sharing product information, company news and upcoming events." Other, newer sports-related organizations, have also found the Internet to be a vital tool for expanding business and reaching fans.

Hosted at sportsfans.org, The Sports Fan Coalition was established in 2009 in Washington D.C. to serve as an advocacy organization for sports fans, clearly an underrepresented group that needed lobbyists. The group argues that since fans have spent billions of dollars financing sports stadiums with their tax dollars, it's their right to watch games both on television and in-person and not be subject to blackouts, unaffordable ticket prices and league lockouts.

The executive director of the Sports Fan Coalition, Ph.D. Brian Frederick, said that without the Internet, the group would be at a huge disadvantage. "It could have existed but it would have been much more difficult," he said. "It would have been difficult to get traction."

As an example, Frederick recalled how the coalition used the Internet to consolidate their effort when encouraging members to petition the Federal Communications Commission about its blackout rules. It's difficult to make a complaint through the FCC's own website, so the Sports Fan Coalition created a site called endblackouts.com for its members to use as a portal to get their voices heard. Passionate fans took off their foam "We're No. 1" fingers and attacked their keyboards. "The point of the site was 'Send a message to the FCC and in turn we will pass it on to them,'" Frederick said. "We got thousands of responses. We would've been talking dozens if there hadn't been the Internet."

At least one professional team has hopes that fans will band together in a different way, by downloading an application. As part of an effort to package all of the team's mobile, social and digital channels into one entity, the Boston Bruins released an app that does just that. The app allows users to get real-time game information and updates, view highlights, buy tickets, listen to the same music fans at the arena are hearing, access parking information and connect with the team via Twitter and Facebook.

Although the defending Stanley Cup champions had a tough year on the ice, losing in the first round of the playoffs, their off-ice strategy appears to be solid. "Any kind of sports fan is going to want to download an app," said Lauren Johnson during a YouTube review of the Bruins app for mobilemarket.com. "I think they are definitely on the right track with their digital strategy."

The results of a February 2012 survey commissioned by mobile-marketing company Motricity support the Bruins' decision to go mobile. According to the survey nearly 80 percent of sports fans have used either a tablet or a smartphone to watch or follow sports within the last year. Clearly the connection between sports fans and their mobile devices is a strong one with potentially damaging ramifications in both this life and the next as 20 percent of those surveyed admitted to checking up on sports while on a date and 14 percent owned up to doing the same thing while at church.

This begs the question: With the Internet churning out all these new ways for sports fans to consume information and connect with their teams, are the more traditional means of fan interaction, like attending a game or watching on television, going to end up like the XFL? Extinct. At this point, it's a good question without a clear-cut answer.

Take the Super Bowl as an example. According to Bluefin Labs a start-up that analyzes social media commentary during television broadcasts, there were more than 11.5 million comments made online during the Super Bowl; Bluefin's competitor, Trendrr counted more than 15.8 million. Twitter itself acknowledged that the game was a social media hotspot, tweeting out after the game on Super Sunday that "In the final three minutes of the Super Bowl tonight, there were an average of 10,000 Tweets per second," a number that trumped even #TimTebow's Twitter dominance of a few weeks prior when his Broncos defeated the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Steelers.

With all of these people tweeting during the game, there's no way they could be paying attention to the old boob tube, right? Not exactly. For the third straight year, the Super Bowl set the record for the most-watched television program in United States history with 111.3 million people tuning in according to Nielsen. Shedding some light on the subject, athletic tape company KT Tape recently reported that according to data collected by USA Today, Bleacher Report and PR Daily, 83 percent of sports fans will check social media while watching a game on television and that 63 percent of fans will do the same thing when they are actually at a game. Simply put, not only are sports fans watching their sports, they're tweeting them too.

Vinnie Borriello, the general manager of SportShouting.com, a one-year-old social networking site created specifically to give fans a forum to interact and rant about the latest sports news, believes the emergence of mobile devices has changed what sports fans demand both at home and at the game. "A rich, seamless experience on a mobile device is critical to any website, and we believe that will be even more important going forward," he wrote in an email.

Borriello argues that teams need to improve the stadium experience by offering Wi-Fi, providing more access to players and creating interactive opportunities at games if they want to keep selling seats and attracting fans. "Some fans prefer the 'Internet' sports experience to the live experience," he said. Mr. Frederick of the Sports Fans Coalition also believes this is an area team owners should be conscious of. "The more that they (team owners) can give the Internet and the digital world to fans and continue to get them to buy tickets, the better for them," he said.

Brett Hutchins, the co-author of the 2012 book "Sport Beyond Television-The Internet, Digital Media and the Rise of Networked Media Sport," believes that the name of the game going forward won't be replacing one form of the fan experience with another, but simply expanding the experience. "It's about intensifying the amount of media we can consume," he said. "Live events aren't going anywhere, but it also doesn't mean people won't be consuming media while they are there."

Besides a general societal shift to this app-driven, social media-linked, mobile culture, Hutchins sees another huge, but oft-overlooked, factor in the realm of sports media -- Telecommunications companies. "Ten years ago they weren't players in sports media at all," he said. "Now they have a huge commercial stake in the way people consume sport."

Hutchins' co-author, David Rowe, has a similar take on the subject. "The old division between broadcasting and telecommunications is collapsing," he said. "It's a logical move for telecommunications companies to get into sports as owners, not just message carriers." The traditional way that fans obtain their sports fix is changing and it's possible that Verizon may one day emerge not just as a content distributor, but also as a content creator and provider.

Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, but Hutchins believes we are past the point of no return and that the days of going to a game simply to support a team by cheering (and without a mobile device) are a thing of the past. "What we have now is a variety of media platforms involving sport and that will develop as the technology develops around them," he said. "People will always find ways of enjoying themselves around sport and they'll use whatever is at hand to do so."

Whatever the future holds for sports fans, it seems clear that sports, the Internet and mobile technology will be as closely linked as beers, buddies and bleacher seats. To get them involved in the athletic universe, parents will head outside to have a catch with their kids as well as teach them how to text, tweet and navigate the web. Much to the chagrin of every 30-something guy who lives in their mother's basement, sports talk radio may go silent, replaced by a mobile app that allows fans to complain directly to each other, eliminating media entirely. Case in point, the Green Monster seats in 100-year-old Fenway Park have had a wireless connection since last August. If things continue to trend this way the Internet may soon replace baseball as the great American pastime - if it hasn't already.