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Wireless is on the move

Sports said to be driving up-and-coming technology

NEW YORK -- If you build it, they will come -- or so it would seem in today's wireless industry, which is readying itself for a big push into the business of delivering sports to a public it perceives as eager for news and video.

That was the message delivered all week as the folks at Street & Smith's, which publishes SportsBusiness Daily over the Internet and the weekly SportsBusiness Journal, held its annual Sports Media & Technology convention.

Wireless was the runaway winner as ''the next big thing." And sports is considered the driving force of this revolution in which our cellphones will become mobile TV screens in addition to their current functions of surfing the net, handling e-mail, taking pictures and video, and downloading and playing music.

The prediction is that we're all going to be walking around with a combination phone, laptop, and TV that will fit in a pocket or purse or hang on our belts. In this business, smaller is better.

NFL Hall of Famer Steve Largent, president of CITA (the Wireless Trade Association) and a four-time congressman, will say only, ''It's a green field out there, and this is an innovative industry. We're moving toward one device that will allow you to conduct all your business. We know the customers will pay for what they want."

And there's the rub. No one is quite sure exactly what the customer wants.

Will it be a phone call alerting you when your team scores? Will it have a link to a video clip that shows the play?

Some predict fans will watch an entire game on a 2- or 3-inch screen.

The industry already has seen serious profits from downloading music on cellphones. ''It became a $3.7 billion industry -- 10 percent of the recording industry's profits," said Largent.

The new technology has providers positioning themselves in many directions.

ESPN, with a platform in every corner of the electronic world, is in the process of launching its Mobile ESPN service. It won't be cheap, with phones priced at $399 at Best Buy in test markets for the holidays. Service plans -- depending on number of minutes used -- will range from $65-$225 per month.

''We're still in the top of the first inning in this business, and don't exactly know where we're going," said Salil Mehta, executive vice president of ESPN Enterprises. ''Research tells us people say they want content to be more than ESPN TV on their phones, but it will be interesting to see what they really want as this plays out. We'll let the consumer decide and be prepared to deliver it."

Brenda Spoonemore, NBA senior vice president, Interactive Services, has seen the Internet come of age as a primary source for news. ''Princess Diana's death was the first time we really saw it. The heavy use crashed the ABC server. Now it's flipped. Instead of the consumer going to the 'Net for news, the news is finding him." In the NBA, that's via a new service that offers cellphone users final score alerts and a video highlight.

Largent predicts we'll see a lot of joint initiatives between cable operators and phone companies. ''Leagues don't want to be in the phone business," said Chris Russo, formerly the NFL's senior vice president for new media and on his own as president of CR Media Ventures. ''Live game content will be a big driver of this business. Now leagues have to decide how to divvy up those rights without hurting their traditional rights fee structures."

While it all sounds confusing, Andy Nulman, president of Airborne Entertainment, which is the NHL's partner in a video highlight venture, tells people not to despair that technology is passing them by. ''The world never is as hip as you expect it to be," he said. ''When Sports Illustrated started selling its sports photos, they found the swimsuit issue photos outsold everything else."

For the rest of us, well, we all know how to answer a phone.

It's just that the ring -- whatever the tone -- may mean there's something new coming over the line or, more accurately, through the air.

Defining times

High-definition television is a service that's hitting a growth spurt.

ESPN did a study of last week's HD programming on all channels. ''The result was 900 rating points worth of viewing," said Bryan Burns, vice president of strategic business planning and development. ''That's a significant figure. When we first rolled out HD in 2003, we said we'd offer quality as opposed to quantity. That first year we did 80 events in HD. That rose to 180 in 2004, and the number will be more than 400 this year, much of the increase associated with the launch of ESPN2 in HD. Now you can say we're doing both quantity and quality."

This year, more HD sets than standard sets will be sold for the first time, the industry expects big holiday sales, and estimates are there will be 100 million HD sets in use in another 2 1/2 years. It would seem that growth has a way to go.

''Right now, HD only has a single-digit market penetration [about 7 percent] and TiVo and Digital video recorders [DVRs] have 3 percent of the market," said Terry Denson, Verizon VP of programming and marketing. ''With 110 million TV households, that represents a big business opportunity for cable and satellite services."

Feld on board

NESN has named Joel Feld executive producer and vice president of programming/production, filling a slot that had been vacant since Bill Borsin left last spring. Feld had been executive producer and executive vice president at College Sports Television. His work helping to build the network seems to be paying off as CBS announced a deal last week to buy CSTV for $325 million . . . Feld can tune in to tonight's ''Sportsplus" (NESN, 5:30 and 11 p.m.) and catch Patriots and NFL talk with host Bob Neumeier, the Globe's Jerome Solomon, and former Patriot Tim Fox.

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