Online Hit

Instant Sports Patents a Pastime

Just over 75 years ago, the country's first radio station (KDKA) aired the medium's first professional baseball broadcast -- a game from Pittsburgh's Forbes Field between the hometown Pirates and the neighboring Philadelphia Phillies. Providing reportage that was nearly live, that revolutionary August 5, 1921 broadcast forever changed the way sports information was to be disseminated, and more importantly, it created a marketable demand for away-game coverage. But because the press boxes in most ballparks didn't have telephone lines (the cost of long distance charges would have been prohibitive anyway), most of baseball's distance broadcasts were "re-creations"-- where a telegraph wire from the ballpark spit out pitch-by-pitch statistics to an announcer (like a young Ronald Reagan) comfortably ensconced in a radio station studio. While the announcers and their shills in the ballpark duped listeners with an imminently entertaining display of news reporting and theatrical performance, they also created the need for better and more timely coverage in the daily papers and eventually, on television. The beauty, of course, was that sports fans could now follow their favorite team without a trip to the ballpark. "In a funny sense, we're just re-creating the re-creation days today," says Instant Sports founder David Barstow, "only with a computer."

Realtime Without Radio

For nearly two Major League Baseball seasons, Barstow's World Wide Web site (http://www.
InstantSports.com) has brought simple 1921 re-creation technology to a complicated computer age, allowing any team's fan, anywhere, to follow along with the game in nearly real time at no charge. In Barstow's system, a data collector at the ballpark sends, via modem, a pitch-by-pitch account that is encoded into a computer database and broadcast on the Instant Sports site just one to two minutes behind real play -- in either a text account or at an animated Instant Ballpark. Already, advertisers, technology experts, and sports pundits are calling the Austin-based firm a leader in next phase of the "sports broadcasting revolution." And if the site's 50,000 visitors a week aren't proof enough that Instant Sports is on the ball, try last July's announcement that Barstow's technology had been awarded a pair of patents -- making him the proprietary owner of the broad rights to broadcast a live event with a computer-coded description destined for a computer simulation.

"The essence is a dynamic database about sporting events while they are going on," say Barstow, a Stanford graduate and Ph.D. in artificial intelligence who created the technology as a hobby. "The information not only reflects the current situation, but also a representation of every play and pitch that led to the situation. So we have a complete detailed history of that game up through any real-time situation that can be transmitted through a number of distribution mechanisms -- be it interactive television, wireless pagers and computers, or home computers with Internet access."

For now, Barstow and partner Tom Fornoff are using the patent almost exclusively for the Instant Sports site, where a computer database creates a new Web page for each play, in each game -- amounting to nearly 6,000 new pages a day. The key to Barstow's system is that baseball itself employs only 78 possible plays, which allows a domain-specific language to form a narrow string of raw statistical data provided by baseball statistics megaprovider STATS, INC. in much the same way the teletype providers gave re-creation announcers codes like "S1C" for "strike one on the corner." Baseball may be slow, contends Barstow, but typically something has happened in the minute or so it takes for the browser to check for a new development. And because the ballpark action is condensed into such a sleek data string, each play, and therefore entire games, are cheaply saved in Instant Sport's memory for recall and replay minutes, days, or even years after the initial live event.

"Our research shows that most fans sit and watch the game as it happens, but there's a VCR control panel that allows the fan that arrived midgame to go backwards and see how the four runs from the top of the first happened," says Fornoff, a marketing expert who honed his skill with IBM for 13 years before joining Barstow last spring. "Then he can pick up the live coverage again without missing anything. A lot of our fans told us they don't want the final score right away. They wanted to watch the game from the beginning, and feel the tension and excitement."

Last season, when Instant Sports officially launched with the 1995 All-Star game, the tension could only barely be felt through the basic text description the firm offered. But with the widespread use of Java, a recent Web language development that combines interactivity and animation, Instant Sports started this season with the Instant Ballpark -- a patented computer field that moves the ball, runners, and position players around the diamond as the action is downloaded. The field itself (called an applet), takes five minutes to load on most Windows 95- equipped PCs and is so complicated, says Barstow, that Netscape chose Instant Ballpark as a key Java product to test the compatibility of its standard 3.0 browser update. But even as advanced as the technology is, this is no field of dreams. In fact, the actual diamond graphics are more like a crude Atari or Intellivision rendering than something you'd expect on a Sega or Nintendo, let alone typical PC baseball software.

"This is acknowledged as the best there is right now using today's browser technology," Fornoff says of the Ballpark, while promising that by next season the Java applet download time will be significantly decreased. "But the key to Dave's patent is that we won't have to change the data feed at all to deliver Sega-style animation when it's available. That'll just be a matter of lining up the right delivery mechanism, not the game data."

In theory, Instant Sport's aesthetic problems could also be solved by the introduction of still or moving photos of the players -- images owned and licensed by Major League Baseball (MLB). Fornoff says he's been in negotiations with MLB itself for months, in talks that have moved along "nicely, but slowly." But the timing couldn't be any better for their discussions, since a pair of federal lawsuits between the National Basketball Association (NBA) and America Online (AOL) questions the rights to the crux of Instant Sport's system -- the actual live broadcasting of professional sports scores. As such, the NBA recently began a campaign to claim that they own the proprietary rights to their association's scores, including the concurrent updates during the course of league events. In July, the NBA sued Motorola for transmitting live scores to its digital pager customers. The contention of the pager firm, and similarly AOL in their separate counter suit against the NBA, is that sports scores are "factual" and "news," thereby covered by the First Amendment. Although a New York federal court's ruling in favor of the NBA in the Motorola case has been stayed pending an appeal, the court's decision is being viewed by legal and multimedia experts as a potential landmark that has already paved the way for the outcome of the AOL suits.

Although Fornoff contends Instant Sports is in a different legal boat than AOL because STATS uses an accredited member of the press working at the stadiums under the auspices of Major League Baseball, he also believes that the company's best route to avoid the lawsuits (and generally beef up business) would be to seek to become an official MLB licensee, at the same time taking advantage of the league's ties to major sponsors. This way, Instant Sports would enhance their own service with properties (photos, logos, etc.) of the league, and at the same time, set up better barriers for unauthorized real-time competitors.

"It's just good business for us not to take sides," Fornoff says. "The leagues are telling us we add a lot of value to the game, in new products and new ways to get through to the international audiences and those that work late or can't otherwise catch games on television. So they [MLB] see the value of our technology. And we're lining up with the league assuming it's good business to work with them rather than against them. On the other hand, if it turns out that legally they can't stop people from reporting realtime data it can only open up the market for us. So we feel we are very well-positioned either way."

Regardless of the outcome of the AOL and NBA lawsuits, Instant Sports may actually have a jump on other potential licensee contenders in that the firm's only other online product this year -- an online scoreboard -- ran within the Florida Marlin's homepage, and therefore has been officially sanctioned by a Major League Baseball team already. "Being associated with the Marlins can't hurt our cause, but from our point of view, the thing we wanted most is just to have the rules settled," says Fornoff. "However it settles out, we'll have value to add."

Marketing From
Tech Town

Austin has had its own value to add as Instant Sports's home town. With local providers OnRamp Access housing their servers and local Web developers providing freelance support on the Java applets and data modes, Instant Baseball's creators say Austin has turned out to be a surprisingly productive center for every aspect of their business other than sales and marketing -- the area that has most directly affected their financial bottom line after the initial design of the patented data system.

"From a technical side, Austin's been a good fit," says Barstow. "But it's not a media town. Part of the challenge is to find the right kinds of alliances with sports media companies, which is a lot easier to find in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. So we're traveling to the coasts quite a bit. Unfortunately, a lot of this is a media proposition and Austin can feel like the media boonies. We don't even have a professional baseball team here!"

It's Instant Sport's focus on the marketing side of the business, say the Web experts, that has made the site a virtual household name despite what the pundits once considered a relatively small demographic marketplace of diehard baseball fans displaced from their hometowns and fantasy (rotisserie) league players looking for statistics. Simply by hiring a New York publicity firm to tout the product in off-line magazines and newspapers like The New York Times, USA Today, and Newsweek, Fornoff says Instant Sports has nearly doubled its hits per week. "The day we launched, we had a story in The New York Times about our All-Star game coverage. And while online can be an overwhelming place to find new sites, we've found the off-line publicity to be invaluable, he adds. "With just Newsweek, The Discovery Channel and Good Morning America we've seen significant jumps."

In the short term, Fornoff says he's looking for the overwhelmingly positive publicity and hits-proven user loyalty to spur advertising sales for the individual page and the animated field's back fence. "We're absolutely generating revenue," says Fornoff. "We've been selling ads to consumer brands like Ace Hardware, Microsoft, IBM, and AT&T because these types of brands are starting to recognize the value of getting through to the upscale Internet customer -- one who has computers, and spends money. And because our service generates so many pages, and so many page impressions that contain their [the customer's] ad, we've had a good value pitch for potential advertisers."

Although they refuse to give specifics, Instant Sport's partners aren't shy about goals of eventually becoming an Internet publisher and of using the patents to collect money from other websites who use their information and packaging. And despite their success at branding Instant Sport's name, Fornoff and Barstow say that as a provider the actual typing of `Instant Sports' name into the browser will be less important to the company than the fact that the system in use will have been provided by them. "Our aim is to serve the industry, so our name may have to take back seat to the publishers we're helping," says Fornoff. "Today we're on the publishing side of an entertainment product. We think our model will move towards being a producer of content, like Starwave, [the company] who produces the [official] NFL and NBA sites."

Off-Season Instant Replay

With the World Series approaching, it would seem that Instant Sport's immediate goal would be to find ways to keep their audience's attention in the off season. The Fall Classic itself should be no problem, because despite the offering of just one nightly game rather than the usual 14, usage during last year's Series and All-Star game indicated only a slight drop-off. Originally, in a series of July press releases, Instant Sports announced intent to cross over into college football and basketball coverage (the two sports that attracted the most post-baseball radio attention in he Twenties). Now, within weeks of their planned off season launch, Instant Sports may be hedging their bets. "The college football product is nearly complete," says Fornoff. "We're just in the midst of how we're going to roll it out and package it. As we change the model of what values the company delivers, we've got to be more careful with our approach. We've also talked about the importance of lining up the rights appropriately, and there's another couple of stars we want to line up in the sky correctly before we launch this service."

As for the college basketball product, Barstow is willing to concede the announcement may have come before they knew for sure if the technology could work. "It's a more fluid sport," he says. "Baseball has a sequence of discrete events, so there's a pause for the reporters to enter information as it happens. Football is similarly workable, but basketball and hockey are a little more challenging technically."

So what's there to do for the Instant Sports regular inherently frustrated by the off season? "Our motto is `any game, any time, anywhere', so we expect that, as they did last season, a lot of our visitors will be checking in and replaying old games," says Fornoff. "We'll be doing some special events, but baseball is a big sport and with the product we have, we're already negotiating with products and sponsors for next year's offering. We'd rather not have off time, but we also aren't willing to launch a service that's not complete, not properly marketed, and not properly lined up with the rights holders."

Instant Sport's handling of the off season appears to be a risky approach, say insiders, but it could pay off if attention paid to improving coverage further cements Instant Sports reputation as the baseball site. Already the firm is promising more user-specific statistics next season. On a wider scale, the company has game plans that should further increase personalized service and address the growth of cable capabilities and direct satellite outlets. "We have a fairly broad patent," says Barstow. "So our strategy is that because we do this better than anybody else, there is a real value in us doing it. The patent helps us protect that piece of the market, but our focus will be on doing what we do even better. And so ultimately, our goal is to build a business around the technology and be the key to the sports broadcasting revolution. How that plays out, only the future can determine."

And because even the latest technological breakthroughs have precedent, Instant Sport's best-case scenario may just be a future as influential as radio's past. n

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