What sport has the Internet transformed the most?
In my previous three posts, we’ve discussed how newspapers and the telegraph transformed horse racing via The Daily Racing Form, how radio transformed baseball and how various forms of television (broadcast, cable and HDTV) transformed football, basketball and hockey. While we probably don’t have enough perspective to declare a sports winner for the Internet, some forms have come to the fore in this era that deserve attention.
If we were to hold a runoff election for the sport that has grown the most because of the Internet, I suspect that mixed martial arts (MMA), poker and fantasy sports would stand as candidates.
MMA: The Sport Made for YouTube
It seems to me no coincidence that MMA went from a backroom sport to a Pay-Per-View darling during the first decade of the 21st century. With barely 20 years in existence, MMA’s pay-per-view audiences roughly equal those of boxing’s, and boxing has existed since the Olympics--the ancient Olympics.
The average heavyweight MMA fight lasts just a tick under eight minutes. As a result, MMA fights work well in an online video format, which generally favors shorter runtimes. Compare the eight-minute MMA fight to a 12-round boxing match that runs 47 minutes in total (not including introductions and results) with 36 minutes of actual fighting.
MMA fights make a nice bite-size treat for the office worker who take Internet breaks rather than cigarette breaks. Moreover, the MMA fight fan can stack several fights into an hour, something the avid boxing fan cannot do. In other words, MMA fits perfectly into a common mode of usage for the Internet, that of time-killer.
To put it another way, the data served up by MMA fights aligns with the trend of right-sizing data. The data fit a consumer need; the consumer does not need to change his way of doing things to benefit from the data.
Poker: Play Like the Pros
ESPN runs the World Series of Poker on its channels, as well as other poker programming. I personally find it hard to believe that Americans have taken to watching people play cards, but then I remember that we share a “special relationship” with the United Kingdom, where they watch people play darts. So there you are.
As with MMA, poker’s rise to TV stardom during the past decade does not seem like a coincidence to me. Online poker grew in revenues from $82.7 million in 2001 to $2.4 billion in 2005, a 29-fold increase in four years. I believe that watching poker on TV and playing poker online became a co-dependent relationship.
Golfers like to point out that beer-league softball players will never get to play in Yankee Stadium, but anybody can play Pebble Beach. Anyone with $495 and the means to get there, that is. However, absolutely anyone with a computer and a few dollars to spend can log on and play poker right now. The ability to learn from the pros on TV and put that knowledge to use right away online no doubt adds excitement to the sport.
I see the data gleaned from the TV/Internet connection as an example of data relevancy. The data have immediate usage for the user. They don’t just keep it around until it becomes useful.
Fantasy Sports: Revenge of the Nerds
Naturally, as a data guy, the appeal of fantasy sports seems obvious to me. In fantasy sports, data are the real players. You don’t draft Justin Verlander, you draft his 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts in 2011.
Fantasy sports predate the web by decades. A group of friends invented the idea in a chicken restaurant called--you guessed it--the Rotisserie in the 1980s. However, playing fantasy sports then required a close eye on The Sporting News, a calculator, a pencil and paper and someone with the patience to tabulate results on a weekly basis.
With the advent of the Web, it became easy for leagues to form based on offerings from various publishers. Players can now sign up, draft players and check results in between emails. Trash talk has moved from basements and barrooms to Facebook and Twitter.
Which of these sports will emerge as the Internet winner? Only time will tell, of course. However, I think the emergence of fantasy sports seems particularly notable. While evening news sportscasters will probably not start spewing out terms like “wins above replacement” or “net yards per attempt index,” I think the average fan has become more data-savvy.
In my next post, the final one for this series, I’ll discuss more about the impact of Internet data on sports as a whole. While it’s fun to pick winners and losers, I think it will be even more instructive to learn how the Internet has changed our relationship with sports as a whole and, perhaps, what it means for our overall relationship with data.