Ingram's Flat Spot On: Broadband Debate Heats Up at Sebring

Story Highlights

  • ALMS broadband coverage causes fan reaction
  • Internet versus television for viewing races

Ingram's Flat Spot On: Broadband Debate Heats Up at Sebring

If you were up before dawn last Sunday to catch a plane, as I was, in hopes of seeing the green flag fall at the Bristol Motor Speedway's Sprint Cup event on TV at home, the idea of watching races live via a computer bears some thought.

On Saturday, the day before this journey started, I was at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, which was carried live on ESPN3.com, the first major sports car race ever covered live on broadband. Up until now, if it's important enough to be televised live, the networks have the rights and send viewers to the traditional TV channels.

Start: Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing Ford leads the field
Start: Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing Ford leads the field

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

The traditional method of watching was where I was headed on Sunday. My way-before-dawn start paid off as I slid into my chair in the den at 1:17 p.m., watching the green drop on Fox Sports before Kyle Busch mowed down another field at Bristol. I then checked out portions of the coverage of Sebring at home via my laptop on the replay available at ESPN3.com just to see how things are percolating along in the land of broadband when it comes to better options for watching live race coverage on a variety of devices.

I had watched a good portion of ESPN3.com's Sebring coverage while in the media center at the track. At home, the replay displayed the same outstanding production values I had watched on the media center monitors, including commentary from veterans John Hindhaugh and Jeremy Shaw.

So what's all the ruckus about not being able to see the race live on Speed TV -- the previous network most familiar to sports car racing fans -- where the coverage of Sebring has admittedly been top notch? As usual, race fans tend to find the traditional methodologies so comfortable that change is necessarily a painful process. That's a fundamental aspect of human nature and a consideration often overlooked in the rollout of the new broadband approach by the American Le Mans Series in a partnership with ESPN.

But is this change really going to work in the long haul -- given that so many people had trouble accessing ESPN3.com's coverage? Or maybe just don't like the idea of watching a race live on a computer even if they can access it?

I must admit, the only way I'd like to watch a motor race live on my laptop would be if it wasn't available by any other method -- such as while traveling. (More on this later.) At home, on the other hand, it's standard with newer models to be able to hook up the TV to a laptop and get the big screen view -- just like downloading, say, Netflix.

The big rub at the moment: ESPN3.com is a new approach to live sports television and it's not available from all Internet Service Providers. Thus, ESPN, which continues to push the electronic media envelope in all directions, has tapped into the debate about net neutrality, one of the larger issues of our times.

For instance, U.S. residents must go through their Internet Service Providers to get ESPN3.com. But those living in Canada, Europe or elsewhere, can sign on to AmericanLeMans.com to access ESPN3.com, because there's enough technology to identify users by territory.

#56 BMW Motorsport BMW M3 GT: Andy Priaulx, Dirk Müller, Joey Hand
#56 BMW Motorsport BMW M3 GT: Andy Priaulx, Dirk Müller, Joey Hand

Photo by: Richard Sloop

Some U.S. providers, such as AT&T, have done a blanket deal with ESPN3.com to carry its video. Sign on, go to ESPN3.com and presto! You've got game -- and racing. Others, such as Comcast, are apparently on a pay-as-the-consumer goes methodology. To get ESPN3.com, users on Comcast have to sign in through Comcast.net. As best I can tell from here, Comcast then pays ESPN3.com a rights fee according to the number of constituents who sign on to the channel. Some Internet Service Providers simply aren't picking up ESPN3.com -- Time Warner was conspicuously absent from the list at ESPN3.com, although I hear Brighthouse users could get on.

In terms of broadband access, we're told by the ALMS that ESPN3.com is available to 90 percent of those who can use broadband, including college campuses and military installations. We're also told that if you piece together all the ISP's that can access ESPN3.com, it can be received in 65 million U.S. households.

As Scott Atherton, president of the ALMS, has pointed out, the situation with ESPN3.com is analogous to the early days of what was originally called Speedvision. The first cable network dedicated to non-stop motor racing coverage, which was eventually rebranded as Speed TV once under the ownership of Fox Sports, was only available on a small percentage of cable networks in its infancy. As the cable universe expanded and the demand among consumers grew, Speed TV gradually became a cable staple.

What's different about the current issue of ESPN3.com concerns the cable network landscape, which is dramatically different these days. The issue of TV channels and movies getting delivered by broadband looks like tag-team Sumo wrestling match among corporate giants such as AT&T, Comcast, DirecTV, etc. In April of 2010, this struggle turned into a donnybrook when the Federal Communications Commission lost a court case against Comcast, which gutted the FCC's authority to regulate the Internet. This opens the door to have consumers pay on a per use basis for TV online just as they do for movies.

I would bet the tide of history is on the side of ESPN3.com and access without direct fees, because parceling up the Internet is not in the public interest and seems all too much like the draconian world of dictatorships and repressive regimes that monitor or shut down social media. On the other hand, the Internet is innovative and entrepreneurial capitalism at its best. In the case of video, production values are invariably tied to money and there has to be some compromise involving filthy lucre somewhere. (I wonder about the exchange of money between AT&T and ESPN3.com, for instance, or whether the relationship grew out of mutual promotional benefits.)

In the long haul, it seems to me companies like AT&T and Comcast are going to find ways to produce revenue streams via payments from one source or another to deliver video on broadband. It's a question of how much it will cost and how it will be implemented.

As for the ALMS, the sanctioning body has regularly stumbled, sometimes badly, on the introduction of its new platform in terms of communicating with fans. Initially, fans were told anybody could sign on to ESPN3.com through the AmericanLeMans.com site. But that tune was changed shortly before the Sebring race and U.S. residents were left to discover how to find access on their own.

Pit stop for #10 Team Oreca Matmut Peugeot 908 HDi-FAP: Nicolas Lapierre, Loic Duval, Olivier Panis
Pit stop for #10 Team Oreca Matmut Peugeot 908 HDi-FAP: Nicolas Lapierre, Loic Duval, Olivier Panis

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

In general, the timing was right for the ALMS to make a switch to develop new TV partnerships beyond the traditional scheme that has usually prevailed with Speed TV and its parent Fox Sports. The ALMS schedule has gradually migrated to Saturdays. From the point of view of ESPN and ABC, that makes for good timing with live broadband events on Saturday and taped network shows on Sundays, which help carry the budget through advertising.

Taped and delayed, of course, has rarely made sense for racing fans, this being to my mind the biggest fly in the ointment -- not the difficulty of accessing ESPN3.com. In my humble opinion, tape-delayed racing coverage is a lot like a beer that's been opened a day earlier -- flat and featureless because the networks invariably cut the shows down from a longer "live to tape" telecast. The methodology necessarily loses the story line and perspective.

Handheld devices are another issue. Due to "instabilities," says the information at ESPN3.com, the use of Firebug is not possible to get events from the site, which excludes some people's handheld devices. (On the other hand, with the right apps and a little advance preparation, some smart phone users can get ESPN3.com via remote access -- even those who have to sign on an ISP such as Comcast.) Since the ESPN3.com system depends on Flash technology, Apple devices can't receive it. As for gamers, the Xbox can get ESPN3.com with the right membership fees; but PlayStation is not yet on board.

Nobody can get ESPN3.com on their laptop via a wireless card yet, to take another example of the ongoing technical handicaps still in place for getting racing live via an electronic device. The day a race fan can get all events live on virtually any kind of device, this revolution will be complete. It got started last Saturday at Sebring.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com.