dropping the digital ball at the super bowl

Super Bowl XLIV last week was probably the most exciting, outstanding Super Bowl I have never seen.

Super Bowl XLIV last week was probably the most exciting, outstanding Super Bowl I have never seen.

I did not get to see it because I ended up spending that Sunday night in an smallish, over-heated city in the south of Brazil, where American football goes pretty much universally unnoticed.

I ended up using internet resources to follow the gam – and getting, in effect, duped and cheated by the NFL.

The quality of play in the past few Super Bowls has been exemplary, but the NFL’s handling of digital media in the coverage of the event has been, and continues to be, insulting and Neanderthal-minded.

I, as an ardent football fan – and, even more to the point, a devoted follower of the Saints – was more than ready to pay a fair price for a chance to see the game streamed lived on my computer, or even just presented respectably on radio.

As it turned out, I could come by neither option.

My wife and I arrived in the town of Paranagua (pronounced par-ah-nag-WAH) on the tourist train through the mountains around 6 p.m., local time, on Super Bowl Sunday.

The game, I knew, was scheduled to begin at around 9:30 Brazil time; but, once I saw that we were not going to get the requisite TV channel in our air-conditioned hotel room, I was faced with a problem.

Though it has a population of around 140,000, Paranagua is a rather sleepy place, particularly on a Sunday night.

My odds of finding a sports bar anywhere, especially one carrying American TV channels, were pretty much non-existent.

Furthermore, the south of Brazil was in the middle of a suffocating heat wave that particular weekend.

The temperature that day in Paranagua was +34 Celsius, +38 with the humidity index factored in – hardly the kind weather for a winter-conditioned Yukoner to be venturing aimlessly around in.

Since there was wireless access available in the room, however, I got down to business with my handy little netbook, seeing what I might be able to drum up on the internet.

I remembered hearing rumblings, earlier in the summer, that CBS and the NFL were in discussions about actually providing the upcoming Super Bowl as a live feed on the internet.

When I arrived at NFL.com, however, any hopes I had of a link to a live video feed, either free or paid, were quickly dashed.

The only thing on offer was a service called an “NFL field pass” for $10 US monthly, which promised me at least an audio feed of the game.

Also on offer was a Java graphics utility which would allow me to follow the plays in the game as coloured arrows on a representation of a grid iron, with little pop-up windows telling me the nature of the particular play and which players were involved in it.

It was hardly a thrilling package, but, desperate to capture some of the ambiance of the game, I forked out the ten bucks on my Visa card, and settled in with a set of head phones and my netbook to follow the action.

Almost immediately, I saw that I was being had.

The live audio feed I had just paid for was nothing more than a rather cheesy AM radio broadcast, replete with long intervals of annoying advertisements for submarine sandwiches and other stuff.

Furthermore, as I followed the plays on the little Java utility, I saw the radio broadcast falling more and more behind the real-time game activity, as they pumped in slices of time for their advertisements.

By the end of the first quarter, the audio feed was a full four plays – almost six minutes – behind what was really happening on the field.

This pattern repeated itself throughout the game: Each quarter would start with the audio commentary pretty much in sync with the action displayed on the Java applet, then gradually fall behind to the point where it became useless, and you just pulled off the headphones and watched the action in the form of coloured bars on the computer screen.

In the second half, in fact, as the radio station piled in more and more adds, their commentary fell even more behind – so much so that, when Tracy Porter of the Saints made that dramatic and game-deciding interception and touchdown return in the last minutes of the fourth quarter, the audio feed was still talking about Payton Manning of the Colts crossing mid field.

Elated as I was by the result (pumping an enthusiastic fist in silent celebration, in a hotel room at 1:30 in the morning, lit, by then, only by my netbooks LCD), I could not help but think about how far we still are from being a fully digitally enabled culture.

Too many australopithecines in suits are still in charge of the sports media environment.

Video streaming of important sports events like the Super Bowl could create a whole new market sector for this industry, and secure it the digitally-reliant market of tomorrow’s sub-thirty male peer group.

What the industry needs is some kind of non-violent mass-extinction event, so it can get some people in charge who understand that the world has changed, and the old technologies don’t cut it, anymore.

Maybe by Super Bowl XLV, both the NFL and CBS will have gotten with the new millennium, and be truly digitally friendly, as they should have been this time.

Oh, an maybe by then they will get with reality and lose the Roman numerals, too, which even university-educated types like me struggle to decipher once you get past the XXX ones.

So, hail to the Saints, and here’s to a digitally-streamed Super Bowl 45, 2011, in Arlington, Texas.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie

who lives in Whitehorse.