In broadcasting the world's first live 3-D football game to theaters in Los Angeles, New York and Boston on Thursday evening, the NFL promises an "up close, personal, visceral" experience that could open a new revenue stream for the league.
The screenings for team owners, producers and journalists will use technology developed by 3ality Digital, a Burbank, Calif.-based company whose major investor is the family of Art Modell, owners of the Baltimore Ravens from 1996 to 2004.
"We are merely doing a test for our friends at the NFL to show them definitively that this digital 3-D technology is now," said David Modell, 47, former Ravens president and chairman of 3ality. "This is not something we're hoping will happen. This is now."
Eight 3-D camera crews will sidle up to 2-D counterparts to catch the game between the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers Thursday evening. The 2-D crews will work on behalf of the NFL Network, while the 3-D crews will work for the test broadcast, which will have its own commentators. 3-D viewers must don polarized lenses to see the action.
Attendees at the Boston screening are to include New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who leads the NFL Broadcasting Committee and will help shape how the league uses 3-D.
The New York screening will host Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, New York Giants co-owner John Mara, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson and Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, another broadcasting committee member.
"All this right now is an experiment," said Howard Katz, the National Football League's senior vice president of broadcasting and media operations. "It's a proof of concept. We just want to get an idea of what our game would look like in 3-D. Anything beyond that is just speculation."
A transition to regular broadcasts of 3-D sports events is not expected soon.
David Hill, the chief executive of Fox Sports Television Group, said at a 3-D entertainment conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday that equipment makers would have to fund a large-scale rollout of 3-D cameras for sports events because broadcasters are still paying for the conversion to high-definition.
"The people who make money off it are going to have to subsidize it," Hill said. "I can't see making a move into 3-D until a good fairy comes flapping into my office with a check."
Despite the concern about costs, Fox Sports plans to do a 3-D broadcast itself of college football's BCS National Championship on Jan. 8 to about 150 digital theaters nationwide. Details have yet to be worked out, said Fox Sports spokesman Lou D'Ermilio.
By the end of 2008, an estimated 2 million U.S. TV sets will be capable of handling 3-D signals, about 2 percent of the nation's estimated 114.5 million TV homes.
Katz said the NFL is not exploring making theater broadcasts regularly available in the way that documentary filmmakers and concert promoters have increasingly been offering their material at digital theaters.
"It's not an alternative we're currently contemplating," Katz said. "We're very committed to the free, over-the-air distribution of our games."
An experiment last year with live 3-D broadcasts involved Pace, a company founded by director James Cameron and his partner Vince Pace. They showed VIP guests a live 3-D transmission of the NBA All-Star game in Las Vegas and followed up with a 3-D transmission of Game 2 of the NBA finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban also hosted a 3-D transmission of a game between the Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs at theaters in Dallas in March.