Grab your glasses, plop down on your couch, and watch the soccer ball fly out of your screen: ESPN is going 3-D. On Tuesday the popular sports network announced that it is launching the first-ever 3-D television channel. (Discovery Communications, Sony and IMAX also outlined plans to launch a 24/7 3-D television network in 2011.) For the channel's first year, ESPN, which is owned by Disney, has pledged to show at least 85 sporting events in 3-D, starting with the South AfricaMexico World Cup match on June 11. The network also plans to broadcast additional World Cup matches, the Summer X Games and college basketball and football games in 3-D. At this point, ESPN is committing to the network for one year. "As we surveyed the landscape of the marketplace over the past four or five months, it became apparent to us that there was going to be this virtual tsunami of 3-D television sets hitting the marketplace," says Sean Bratches, ESPN's executive president for sales and marketing, who has played a major role in the network's 3-D initiative. "There's probably no better genre than sports for 3-D."
Over the past few years, when you asked any tech geek who works in sports about the future, you'd hear a familiar refrain: 3-D, 3-D, 3-D. Now, it appears the extra dimension is finally here. Analysts expect a slew of 3-D-related products to be released at the Consumer Electronics Show, which starts Jan. 7. ESPN has already experimented with 3-D production the network showed the September USCOhio State football game in 3-D in select movie theaters.
What will the network look like? ESPN 3-D will have its designated space on the dial. However, when a live 3-D event is not playing, which will be most of the time for now, the channel will be dark. You'll need to buy a 3-D-capable television set, get a set-top box from your cable or satellite provider and, yes, grab a pair of glasses. "There will be varying degrees of glasses," says Bratches. "You can buy glasses for 50 cents that look like you're sitting next to Jake and Elwood Blues, or you can buy a very high-end designer pair. They all do very different things." Be careful: certain glasses only work with certain 3-D sets, so grill the guy at Best Buy.
According to Bratches, the in-home 3-D experience will take you dangerously close to the action. "When we did the USCOhio State game, one of the most interesting things we saw was when they ran a play to the side of the field where the 3-D cameras were," he says. "The people in the front row [of the theater] literally stood up. They thought they were going to get hit." Sports broadcasts in 3-D will require additional cameras at different angles from those in the 2-D production. "The camera at the center court line, 47 rows up, looking at the basketball game going back and forth doesn't provide a lot of value," Bratches says. For basketball games, you'll want to see a 3-D camera behind the basket: Duck, here comes Kobe flying at me. ESPN even plans to use different announcers for the 3-D broadcasts, so that they can emphasize the unique angles.
Though ESPN is still Disney's cash cow, the 3-D channel will carry significant risks. In addition to added production costs, there's a more crucial issue facing ESPN: whether people are ready to fork over big bucks to upgrade their television sets, just for a few good games. Yes, consumers can expect more 3-D content to be rolled out over the next few months. But will there be enough to justify what could be a $4,000 purchase, in a sticky economy, by the time ESPN 3-D launches? Plus, will the consumers who have already dropped a few thousand bucks on an HD set in recent years be ready to upgrade again so soon?
Bratches says he heard the same skeptical questions when ESPN first entered the HD game. "If you look back at the HD experience, we had a similar amount of content that we're offering now in 3-D," he says. "But viewers saw the future, bought into the vision and invested, and now the deployment of HD sets is significant. We feel very good about where we are." And come June, ESPN will show sports fans where they are going. Look out for the flying soccer balls.