The only thing that can beat watching broadcast sport these days, is watching it live at the ground. But that is under threat as TV and social media are beginning to make watching the game even better than being there.
Before we look to the future consider the past. Humans have been watching live events since before the Romans were killing each other in the colosseum almost 2 000 years ago.
The first "live" broadcast
It was only in 1911 though that following a live event without attending became possible. A college American Football match between two states saw over a 1 000 fans gather in one state to see how their team was doing in the adjoining state. They did not get to listen or watch the match, it was telegraphed play by play. After being read out a board showing the field positions was updated. A humble beginning, but text commentary is still a staple for many that can't watch or listen.
When audio broadcasts began in the 1920s sports soon followed. TV began broadcasting in the late 20s and sport was a major driver, the 1936 Olympics being one of the first.
Screens got a little bigger and the image improved, but the next innovation was only in 1955 when a Davis Cup tennis match was broadcast in colour. This was huge and TV went on to not only cover sport but change it. Tennis introduced the tie-break to prevent drawn-out matches in minor games and even changed the equipment itself. Tennis balls used to be white, but with the introduction of colour TV, it was suggested they switch to green, officially they are optic yellow. The man responsible for the change was Sir David Attenborough! What might the world’s favourite nature documentary maker have to do with tennis, he was the head of BBC 2 at the time it had been given the go-ahead to use colour broadcasts and one of the first was Wimbledon in 1967. Wimbledon did not change their use of white balls and only did so years later after everyone else had.
1955 also saw the first replay and slow motion, nothing like what we know today but a major innovation for couch fans.
In 1957 golf majors began switching to stroke play as match play would often see the top players knocked out early. Stroke play allowed the top players to more often feature as the victors.
It was 1965 when the first graphics appeared on-screen although it was very basic text.
Another notable sporting change for broadcast is in football, the 1970 FIFA world cup featured the Telstar, the iconic ball with black and white panels created to make the ball more visible to TV audiences, it is named for the communications satellite of the same name. Tournament balls look very different now but it was not forgotten the world cup football for last year's tournament was called the Telstar 18.
24-hour sports broadcasting began with ESPN in 1979 a year before 24-hour news was launched with CNN.
Satellite TV added lots more channels even though at the time South Africa had not even started any broadcasts until 1976.
MNET would rival the SABC for sport in the late ’80s and launched Supersport as its own channel in 1995 with the launch of DStv and the first Rugby World Cup in South Africa.
Screen graphics overlaid on the screen to mark distance covered or offsides became popular in the late 1990s.
And all the while the video recorder became the reliable friend to record the action when you could not get to the game or the TV. Many might even record a game they watched live to catch up on the plays they missed.
A new century and new ways to watch came in the form of higher definition pictures and you no longer had to watch on TV, the web was now a place to watch.
More cameras were added and special ones too. They could determine the speed of the ball and Hawk-eye allowed us to see what a cricket ball might do.
The 2010 Football World Cup featured matches broadcast in 3D, it did enhance the action although the technology never really took off.
Social media became the go-to companion to not only shout and celebrate at the TV but to everyone on Twitter or Facebook.
Most sport is funded by TV rights and those costs are astronomical, in order to recoup the costs broadcasters have introduced breaks in matches in order to play commercials. The SABC was not able to secure rights to broadcast the upcoming rugby world cup because it could not expect to get enough advertising to pay for the rights.
Rugby World Cup 2019
The first match might not sound like a clash of rugby titans, but considering the teams, Russia and Japan have yet to sign a treaty ending their part in World War II it is a big meeting. Japan hopes to set a new national rugby viewership rating of over 25 million.
There will be over 20 cameras for the game with a crazy 34 for the finals. Those cameras will broadcast in 8K to the Japanese market with the rest of the world getting 4K for all the matches that are hoped to reach over 800 million viewers during the course of the tournament.
Besides the on-screen graphics, the social media feeds and extra stats on the official World Cup app, pointing your camera at the screen should bring up additional augmented reality overlays cramming more info over and around your TV.
Pausing and reviewing live TV is no longer an innovation but 4K and certainly 8K broadcasts will also allow viewers to zoom in to watch a play in close-up slow motion.
You can watch highlights of many of the historic Rugby World Cup finals
The future of sports broadcasts
While the multiple cameras cover every angle and the players tracking devices supply full statistics on movement a new technique would allow you to view a play from a player's perspective using computers to determine the movement of a player and what that would look like on the field during a live play.
All those statistics are also useful for the coaches as they can now track every inspired move and fateful mistake.
While 8K TV’s are effectively as clear as you watching something in the flesh, there is still an option to recreate the 3D option that failed in the past, but odds are it will not just be 3D on the screen, it will be you wearing virtual reality eyewear and watching the game from the sidelines or even by walking onto the pitch if you wanted.
And it would not only get better for those at home, but bigger screens at the ground will also allow you to catch up on anything you missed while augmented reality glasses may add all the extras available on your TV right there at the game.
You may even one day head down to your local stadium and watch your team play anywhere in the world or any team playing anywhere in the world with holographic players running around the pitch. Should there be an important moment, those holograms could be super-sized to watch the action again in giant sizes.
Perhaps the Romans thought live entertainment had reached a pinnacle and could not get any better, but after 2 000 years, we are now able to say that we really are entertained.
Image credit: The Rugby World Cup 2019 logo is the official mark of the Rugby World Cup in Japan.