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Evan Hansen

Staff Writer, CNET

Here’s another baseball stat to go with your morning coffee and news that the St. Louis Cardinals have defeated the Houston Astros to advance to the World Series: 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. “We’re working to offer instant video replays, electronic score cards and interactive concessions that would allow fans to place orders from their seats. There are some logistical problems with that, but it is something Wi-Fi technology is giving us an opportunity to look at.”

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.

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.

Petco Park became a showcase for HDTV this year when the San Diego Padres teamed with Sony Electronics and Cox Communications to install 300 high-definition screens and to retrofit the stadium for HDTV broadcasts.

Broadcasters are now hard at work behind the scenes in dozens of stadiums across the country, wiring venues with fatter pipes capable of ferrying HDTV signals from all of their events.

Vyvx, which provides data transmission services for broadcasters, last month said it had built the first end-to-end fiber network for live HDTV. The network links 28 marquee stadiums in the United States to TV facilities. Customers include Fox Sports, which plans to use the network for its high-definition baseball coverage.

In addition, Wi-Fi has become increasingly common at sports venues, whether as a permanent feature in stadiums such as SBC Park or as a temporary network set up for a single event.

Wi-Fi network developer Tropos Networks has made a niche for itself creating on-the-fly wireless access zones at NASCAR and other speed sport races. In March, the company built a mesh Wi-Fi network at the Texas Motor Speedway near Fort Worth for the NASCAR Samsung/Radio Shack 500. A mesh network connects multiple Wi-Fi access points to one another to extend the range and bandwidth available on the wireless system.

Bert Williams, Tropos Networks’ vice president of marketing, said the company set up that NASCAR network in less than a day, serving 40 journalists and about 100 fans with online access during the weeklong event. In a follow-up last month, Tropos helped provide Wi-Fi access at a powerboat race in St. Petersburg, Fla., he added.

“More and more, we’re seeing that people want to be connected, they want to stay in touch with the other part of their lives or find statistics and other information to enhance the event they’ve come to watch,” Williams said.

Not to be outdone, wireless carriers have begun offering mobile sports services that send statistics and other information to fans wherever they may be, including the stands. Major League Baseball in August struck a deal with Nokia to deliver audio broadcasts, video highlights and stats to cell phones.

Under that deal, baseball content is being added to the Nokia Sports application, which also lets T-Mobile USA subscribers access a package of video highlights from the National Basketball Association.

Stadiums have partnered with wireless carriers on interactive services such as instant polls, which let fans answer questions and display the results instantly on the stadium scoreboard.

Not everyone is a fan of the high technology making its way into ballparks and other sports arenas.

Mark Cuban, the billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner, wouldn’t think of surfing the Internet from his seat during Mavericks home games. And thanks to him, neither will anybody else attending Mavericks basketball games at the American Airlines Center–despite the recent addition of Wi-Fi access in the stadium.

“We want people into the games, not upset because someone spilled a beer on their PDA or because they missed a play because they were checking stock quotes,” Cuban wrote in a recent e-mail to CNET “We have talked about it, but it’s not going to happen during a game. It’s my call, no one else’s, for Mavs games.”

Laptops won’t likely replace gloves in the stands at San Francisco’s SBC Park anytime soon, either. According to Bill Schlough, vice president and chief information officer of the Giants, only about 200 fans have logged onto the team’s Wi-Fi service during any single game.

A group of San Francisco bloggers took the Giants’ Wi-Fi service out for a spin this summer. Evan Williams, founder of Pyra Networks, a recent Google acquisition, took some photos and posted them to the Web, while his game mate Noah Glass took a moment to record his impressions.

“Sitting outside at the Giants SBC Park, connected to the Wi-Fi just feels natural, like it should be,” he wrote. “This level of connectedness doesn’t feel borg-like or matrix machiney. It’s dusk with plenty of light in the sky…sweet summer time, connected to the world.”

Still, he observed, “we are a bit of an oddity, people turning around to see what we are doing with our computers. Some day it will be more normal.”

Across town, in the San Francisco 49ers’ newly renamed Monster Park, is a further sign that stadium Wi-Fi could have only limited appeal. One of the first experiments with the technology was sidelined when the football team ended its online access plan, citing lack of interest.

“It launched in 1997. It ran in the suites, and we had folks there to demonstrate how to use it. But we found there was very little interest at all, because people wanted to focus on the game,” 49ers spokesman Kirk Reynolds said. “It faltered after the first season.”

Reynolds said there are no plans to bring Wi-Fi back to Monster Park, but it might be considered for a new stadium for which the team is currently working to win approval.

Beyond offering perks to fans, information technology such as Wi-Fi can assist security and maintenance crews, and streamline crowd management. Tens of thousands of fans have taken advantage of e-ticketing services, allowing them to buy and exchange tickets online and ease delays at the turnstiles. Down the road, teams are looking to see if such programs can be adapted for concessions.

“We think the lines for garlic fries are too long,” said Schlough, adding that he’s currently looking at a number of emerging technologies to feed hungry fans and get them in and out of stadiums more quickly.

“RFID (radio frequency identification) technology makes a lot of sense for fans, because it can facilitate faster transactions,” he said. “We’re also in preliminary talks with biometrics companies, but that’s pretty futuristic.”

Most fans shouldn’t expect to be able to order beer and hot dogs from their seats any time soon, however. Schlough said significant logistical problems could make at-seat ordering and delivery impractical barring major breakthroughs in stadium design.

“SBC Park wasn’t built with a delivery service in mind,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean stadiums in the future won’t be designed to try to take advantage of that.”

CNET’s Ben Charny contributed to this report.