Don’t txt that goal!

This article was originally published on Salon on July 10, 2010.

Soccer officials and their foolish rules, trying to restrict what fans can say from inside the stadium

In the technology whack-a-mole sweepstakes, please meet this month’s winner: FIFA, the cartel that operates the World Cup. The organization actually appears to believe it can stop fans attending the games from telling people outside the stadium what’s going on inside, at least in any timely way.

Allow me to quote from the Stadium Code of Conduct, which prohibits fans from bringing into the stadium (unless perviously authorized) a long, long list of items including:

p) cameras (except for private use and then only with one set of replacement or rechargeable batteries), video cameras or other sound or video recording equipment;

q) computers or other devices used for the purposes of transmitting or disseminating sound, pictures, descriptions or results of the events via the internet or other forms of media…

Skip down a bit and you find another long list of prohibited actions once inside the stadium. The relevant one here says one may not:

record (except for private purposes), transmit, or in any other manner disseminate over the internet or any other media, including mobile devices, any sound, image, description, or result of any event taking place within the Stadium, in whole or in part, or assist any other person(s) conducting such activities; commercially exploit any photographs or images taken within the Stadium…

FIFA’s motives aren’t mysterious. Like all professional entertainment organizations — and pro sports is nothing but an entertainment business when you come down to it — the organizers want to control who’s going to make money off at least the immediate event, if not every ancillary piece. But FIFA’s rules, like so many others, are unsustainable.

In an hour or so, I’ll be heading to the consolation game of the 2010 World Cup in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, with a group of journalism educators from around the world. (The sponsors of a conference where I spoke have helped pay my expenses, including a ticket to the game.) I’m not sure whether I’ll commit one of the prohibited actions, but I’ll definitely be violating the rules of what I can bring inside. And, of course, I’ll be one of the tens of thousands of people there who does so.

This is because, as FIFA knows perfectly well, most of us — surely a majority of those attending a World Cup game — carries a video camera and sound recording device at all times, as well as a computer. It’s called a mobile phone. If it’s a so-called smart phone, it’s capable of everything FIFA and other big sports cartels, such as the International Olympic Committee, have no real idea how to handle in an ecosystem they want to control so completely but which is opening up despite their wishes. (The Olympics officials made themselves look truly idiotic earlier this year with their attempts to restrict even what athletes could say.)

They can discover the pro-quality, high-definition video cameras with zoom lenses and the works, and keep that gear out. But some newer mobile devices are getting pretty slick in their video capabilities, and hidden cameras, for better or worse, are getting much, much more capable and simple to disguise. In a few years it’ll be trivially easily to disguise even a HD video recorder in, for example, buttons or caps. What will FIFA and similar organizations do then?

Rather than try to restrict the use of these devices, FIFA would be wise to encourage them. I’m not urging them to invite people to bring in fancy video gear with super-resolution close-up capabilities (yet, anyway). But to suggest that people should not be allowed to send an SMS to a friend after a goal is scored is lunatic even for the most control-freakish outfits.

In fact, if I were running FIFA’s communications/media operation, I’d invite people to be posting videos wherever they wished, and would do my best to aggregate the best ones as quickly as possible. I’d invite the global Internet audience to piece together whatever looked the most interesting videos in any way they chose, and then invite those folks to tell us where to find them so we could promote the best ones.

Will there be a time when fan-TV in real time is good enough to be good enough for the people who pay for TV service that advertisers sponsor at huge costs? Eventually, perhaps. But not right away, and there’s plenty of time for live-entertainment industries to figure out rational new rules.

Real-time social media should be a boon to big-time entertainment, including sports. I wonder if the official bodies that run them will recognize that soon enough.