Sports may be the Internet's 'killer app'

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 13 February 1999

But the popularity of sports news, conversation and gambling on line has forced me to realize that quite the opposite is true: Sports fans are geeks. They are librarians, dedicated to preserving the most esoteric details of sports trivia and maintaining the archives of scores and players past.

They are statisticians, constantly calculating variables against one another (Does Smith score more on rainy days?). They also are historians, preserving the narratives of great victories and losses and retelling them to young newcomers who, without such examples, might mistake their own sports era for one of the great golden ages.

The World Wide Web has served the sports fan even better than the sex addict. While a photo of a nude model is a poor substitute for the real thing – especially at today’s modem speeds – the sports stories and statistics available on line are the real thing.

For, unlike football players (or sexually active adults, for that matter), football fans don’t actually do anything. They don’t play sports; they watch them. And this watching itself only goes on for a couple of hours a week. While the real players are out on a field somewhere practising, the fans are gathering facts, reading commentary and buying collectibles.

This is why sports might prove to be the greatest “killer application” for the Internet after stock-market hype.

Interestingly, sports and stock picking are similar in many ways. In both cases, we watch television and radio to learn the opinions of the “experts” and then exchange these same opinions with our drinking buddies as if they were our own. The bars of New York are filled with people talking about Earthlink, Excite and other active stocks.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the same bars, sports fans are remarking how a goal in last night’s game was strikingly similar to one scored by a different player on the same team six years ago. Of course, most of these fans would not have recalled the details of said historic game had their memory not been jarred by an article in the morning paper.

But this is beside the point. And it’s less a concern now that there are so many sources of sports information other than the morning paper to choose from. I currently receive two different daily basketball reports by E-mail each morning and regularly visit three sporting Web sites. By the time I get a telephone call from one of my fellow New York Knicks fans,

I already know about a possible change in tonight’s starting lineup, the status of a player who got injured in practice and the moments of last night’s game that best exemplify the team’s lingering weaknesses.

The object of the game, for the sports fan anyway, is to have a deeper repository of collected information and insight than his buddies – a more extensive database of names and numbers that can be accessed instantaneously in a conversation. One’s machismo is measured not by the size of his biceps but by the depth of his memory. This is no different from the kinds of giggly geek fests enjoyed by Trekkies who can mine episodes of Star Trek: Voyager for inconsistencies with scripts from the original series.

As a result, the sports fan has found just as hospitable a home on line as the science fiction aficionado or the stock picker. The Internet extends his access to the database on which he thrives as well as to the variety of sources from which he may draw opinions. Chat rooms and bulletin boards give him the chance to test (or steal) assertions.

Most important, unlike sex or investing, sports fanaticism is an armchair activity to begin with. The Net simply enhances the sports fan’s role as an audience member.