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The NFL Fiasco Is a Sign That Our Virtual Worlds Are Overtaking the Real One


As the build-out of the virtual world continues, televised sports may join horse-racing and soap operas in the dustbin of the past.


"You're still gonna watch the game."

That's the conclusion fans, media pundits, and presumably, owners, have come to following several notable blown calls made by replacement referees in the NFL over the first few weeks of the season. But is that the case?

As someone who felt like an outlier as an avid user of Prodigy and the internet while I was a teenager in the mid '90s, only to realize later that I was an early adopter, I'm starting to get the same feeling as my media habits have shifted over the past few years.

Almost all of my media consumption now is on user-generated content, whether that's chatting with friends, social media, news stories written by friends or people I follow on Twitter, or social gaming. I gave up TV when I moved to Atlanta a couple years ago -- at first it felt like a temporary inconvenience, but now I don't miss it. The only time I feel compelled to watch it is when my online community is talking about a show, but even then the TV experience only serves to supplement my social media experience.

Thanks to platforms like iTunes, Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), and Hulu, the only content not available online is HBO and live sports. But this year we're seeing increased scrutiny on live sporting brands, most notably #NBCfail and the broadcast decisions of NBC during the Summer Olympics, and now, the NFL and its replacement referees. We're subconsciously tearing down the few remaining golden geese of television.

We don't care about football, and certainly not football referees. We care about our fantasy teams, gambling results, and our ability to share our views and experiences with our communities, which we're increasingly doing online and with our phones. If computer referees could give us this ability better than humans we'd demand the computers. And maybe, if robot players were more compelling than human ones we'd demand the robots. Fox knows this.

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The big theme of the 2010s is tearing down the 20th century -- automobiles and oil, consumption and debt, mass media and materialism -- and replacing it with a networked, virtual age of intangible assets, mobility, and data-driven reputation.

Out with the rugged individualist driving a truck and in with the guy on an iPhone (NASDAQ:AAPL) taking transit, riding a bicycle, or using a car-sharing service. Out with using debt to buy cars and houses to show off our success, and in with online photo albums of our trips or meals at trendy restaurants, which serve the same purpose. Instead of being marketed to while passively consuming television we're becoming brands ourselves, with our reputation becoming our most valuable asset, as we market the ideas, products, and services we like to our communities over social media.

It's easy to miss the slow and steady improvement in our new virtual worlds while we fret about the looming disasters stemming from the decline of the physical and financial one. LinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD) adds a feature or two. We refine our Twitter follows to better reflect our interests. Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) tweaks its algorithm so we see only the updates we care about. Pinterest and Instagram go viral. Spotify and Pandora (NYSE:P) get better. Zynga (NASDAQ:ZNGA) grows its platform. Media brands optimize their sites for tablets and smartphones. The iPhone 5 launches and LTE goes mainstream. A year or two passes, and it's remarkable to see the improvement.

And it's shaping how we interact with our communities. I have real world friends with whom I use online media to strengthen the real world relationship. And I have online friends with whom I physically meet up to strengthen the online relationship. The lines between the two are blurring, and I'm not sure which matters more.

All I know is it's a lot harder to radically improve the physical world than the virtual one. To have flying cars, space flight, teleportation, and futuristic public transit requires trillions of dollars, scientific breakthroughs, public-private partnerships, political harmony, and years of build-out. Potentially radical improvements to the virtual world require a handful of people and the money to pay for Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) Web services. In the near-term anyway, the virtual world is likely to continue to gain share relative to the physical one.

So it's hard not to chuckle as so many invested in the NFL thrash and moan about replacement referees. As the build-out of the virtual world continues televised sports may join horse-racing and soap operas in the dustbin of the past.

Twitter: @conorsen
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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