Sports venues look to score with wireless, HDTV

But will Wi-Fi, high-definition broadcasts, mobile messaging and other enhancements improve the game, or wreck it? Photos of tech-friendly parks

The Houston Astros just missed out on making it into the World Series, but the baseball team is in the game when it comes to wireless technology.

In October, 613 fans logged onto the Astros' free Wi-Fi network at Minute Maid Park, clocking some 1,500 hours of connection time during the team's most nail-biting moments of 2004.

The numbers may be small, but they point to a growing trend at ballparks and sports venues. More and more teams are offering fans the chance to catch up on the latest stats and e-mail by logging onto wireless Internet networks from their seats. The Astros joined the San Francisco Giants in launching a free stadium Wi-Fi service this year during the All-Star Game.

"The idea is to use technology to help the fans," said Andrew Huang, vice president of marketing for the Astros, who lost the National League Championship series Thursday night to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals will play the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, starting Saturday.

"We're working to offer instant video replays, electronic score cards and interactive concessions that would allow fans to place orders from their seats," Huang said. "There are some logistical problems with that, but it is something Wi-Fi technology is giving us an opportunity to look at."

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High-tech gear is pushing its way into sports stadiums and arenas, offering and team owners and fans everything they need to satisfy their inner geek.

Wi-Fi is just for starters. High-definition television (HDTV), mobile messaging, e-ticketing and other developments are fast turning venerable sports arenas into showcases of cutting-edge technology.

The reasoning behind the drive is simple: Give the fans a richer experience, and the payoff will come in a healthier bottom line and stronger support for the team.

Stadium design reached a watershed in 1985, when then-Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie pioneered the use of novel financing tools through the sale of luxury boxes and seats to season ticket holders. Since then, pro team owners have used new stadium construction as a competitive weapon, sports experts say, with technology often leading the way.

Cutting-edge venues increasingly offer teams financial advantages over rivals housed in older, amenity-scarce buildings. Modern structures are now explicitly designed to create revenue streams, offering teams bigger budgets to pay for expensive talent. That translates into better standings on the field, improved attendance and higher gate receipts.

"It's all bottom-line stuff that's driving this," said Robert Baade, a professor of economics at Illinois' Lake Forest College who has written extensively on the economics of sports. "All kinds of stadiums are being built today because owners realize that they can't compete (if they have) economically obsolete stadiums."

Stadium owners are casting a wide net in search of the next killer app, experimenting with all sorts of stadium bells and whistles, including better sound systems, state-of-the-art video displays, luxury amenities, and even unproven technologies such as Wi-Fi.

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One of the biggest technology makeovers under way in sports stadiums is for the stay-at-home crowd: HDTV.

Stadiums "did not cable inside the park for HD," said Ben Schick, president of MediaOne, which manages broadcast transmissions for the San Francisco Giants.

Current cabling can carry HDTV signals about 300 feet, which means that broadcasters have to run temporary cable or compress the signal, compromising quality. Schick estimates that fully retrofitting stadiums for HDTV broadcasts will cost between $300,000 and $750,000 per venue, depending on the age of the building and other factors.

That's set off a tug-of-war between stadium owners and broadcasters over who will pick up the costs, Schick said. "The conversation has only really started this year," he said.

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