With visions of new revenue opportunities from years of stats, plays-of-the-week and broken records, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League and the National Hockey League are all exploring interactive opportunities.
"The NFL is very much like the Disney of sports," said Tom Richardson, senior director-publishing at NFL Properties, using an analogy also employed by the NBA. "We're a major multimedia content holder. We have a large film, video and photo library. We have our statistics, stars and trademarks. We have the game. And we own it all."
Each sports league has dedicated personnel exploring the multimedia arena. The NBA, for example, has a multimedia task force, chaired by Ed Desser, president of TV ventures for NBA Properties. The group includes representatives from the marketing unit's legal, publishing, TV and consumer products divisions.
Already, alliances and deals are being struck. A year ago, the NFL inked an exclusive deal with Prodigy to distribute football information online. The league is now finalizing details to allow Pro Bowl balloting via the service.
After the deal expires in January, the NFL is expected to add new online partners.
MLB has also teamed with Prodigy, but the strike and subsequent cancellation of the season delayed that launch.
In the area of CD-ROMs, three leagues-baseball, football and hockey-are working on projects with New York-based RealTime Sports. The first project, "The Official NFL Yearbook," hits software stores this month and sells for $50.
Another disc, "The History of the NFL," is due out next month from RealTime and Turner Interactive, Atlanta. "The NFL's 75 Greatest Plays" hits stores by yearend from Turner. This January will see an interactive history of the Super Bowl from DiscUS Sports, San Mateo, Calif., an effort that could have a corporate sponsor. And next year, Optimum Resource, Hilton Head Island, S.C., will issue what promises to be an annual pre-season CD-ROM called "Team NFL."
MLB is also stepping up to the CD-ROM plate. Last spring, the league connected with Microsoft Corp. to create "Microsoft Complete Baseball," providing historical data, statistics and recordings for answering machine messages.
The NBA also is teaming with Microsoft on its first CD-ROM, "Microsoft Complete Basketball," due out this month.
Despite all the activity, the sports leagues admit gauging consumer appetite is difficult. Some, like the NFL's Mr. Richardson, see CD-ROMs and other interactive projects as a youth marketing tool.
The leagues have also expressed interest in selling advertising on the CD-ROMs, although that may prove difficult without a solid feel for consumer demand.
"There are very high developmental costs, and since it's difficult to predict usage, the question will be how do you recover developmental expenses," the NBA's Mr. Desser said. "There will be a variety of ways to support these technologies, and one option will be advertising."
The multimedia revolution promises to change the relationship between leagues and their TV partners. As part of its TV rights deals with the NHL and the Big 10 college sports conference, ESPN is developing CD-ROMs through its NHL Enterprises unit.
"A company like ours is looking to become more valuable to our advertisers and rights holders, so we have to offer more opportunities," said Ed Durso, exec VP-general counsel at ESPN.
"I think we would like to work hand-in-hand with our television partners in understanding and exploring multimedia," said Michael Bernstein, director of publishing at MLB Properties. "There are obviously some things in this area that a media partner would understand and do better."
The leagues are moving more slowly into the area of interactive TV, but its promise excites them the most.
The NBA is looking at technologies consumers can use to access statistical information through their TVs during NBA broadcasts. The league also is talking to AT&T-an NBA sponsor-about taking part in the phone company's upcoming interactive TV tests.
The NFL is doing more than talking; as early as January, that league could be up and running on GTE Main Street. The service would allow viewers to get information on players and teams, purchase licensed NFL apparel and even get information on NFL sponsors and broadcast advertisers.
But to at least one VIP in the sports TV business, such talk sounds a little pie-in-the-sky.
"There's probably a place for all this, but I have to tell you, I believe that televised sports is still a passive experience," said Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports. "There is a segment of the audience that wants interactivity, but I believe people want to watch the game, not play it."
And indeed, while sports leagues suddenly can't afford to ignore interactivity, they all say they are proceeding cautiously.
"The most fun we have every day is listening to the presentations of those that come in here that predict the future," said Rick Welts, NBA Properties president. "It's exciting, but ... we're not anxious to be first in this area. We're going to take a little more time. We're going to be a little less anxious on getting into the area of new technologies."