November 20, 2008, 1:35 PM — Imagine the scene: it's Thanksgiving. You're stuck at your in-law's, and, for reasons you can't understand, they'd rather sit around the table gobbling down turkey than engage in that greatest of American traditions: watching football. Your only method of escape sits in your pocket: it's your cell phone. Can it help? Answering that question can bring you face to face with some of the convoluted realities of the modern mobile content market.
Live action in your pocket -- for a price
Will you in fact be able to catch the big game during Thanksgiving dinner without sneaking away to the living room? Yes! Or, maybe. If you're one of the 50 million subscribers to Sprint Nextel, the number three wireless provider in the US, and if you have a supported phone, and if you have a Sprint Everything plan or pay an extra $15 a month fee -- if you fall into all of these categories, then you can watch the games broadcast on the NFL network. On this upcoming Thanksgiving Day, that means the Cardinals-Eagles game at 8:15 pm Eastern on your cell phone -- so hopefully that's the game you consider to be big. There are other caveats as well -- you'll need to be in range of of Sprint Nextel's 3G network, for instance, and you'll need decent eyesight to follow along on your phone, and you'll need to be pretty surreptitious to watch it while your relatives all have "family time."
What if you're a college football fan? You can watch some college ball, too -- if you're a subscriber of the number one or number two wireless providers, Verizon and AT&T, and pay extra to receive the FLO TV service, which is only available on certain phones. (Sorry, iPhone users!) Again, you only get a small slice of the NCAA football action out there -- and, in your prisoner-of-Thanksgiving scenario, you don't actually get to watch any games on Thanksgiving Day, though you can see LSU go up against Arkansas the Friday afterwards, while everyone is sitting around digesting and moaning.
Scores and updates
That, in short, is the somewhat grim state of actually watching games on your cell phone, and to be sure it tells a sad tale of the fragmentation of the mobile content market. The fact that in choosing a mobile provider you also choose whether you'll be watching pro or college football -- despite the fact that millions are fans of both, and would probably be willing to pay for both -- illustrates how the mobile market works (or doesn't).
But let's be absolutely honest: how much live-action football do you really plan to squint at on your handset? More likely, you're looking for scores and stats updates. For pro football fans, the NFL actually has a decent mobile-formatted Web site, at wap.nfl.com. (Bizarrely, you can't find this address on the NFL's regular site; you have to request it by text message.) The NFL.com site doesn't live up to Major League Baseball's extensive mobile offerings, complete with video and audio; but what you get from NFL.com you get for free, which is more than you can say for baseball. At any rate, it's more than enough to keep you updated on the scores on the sly while you're in the office, or gabbing with relatives over stuffing and mashed potatoes.
The NCAA, unfortunately, doesn't provide as complete a package as its pro counterparts. The NCAA football Web site, which is kind of a mess even if you're looking at it in a desktop browser, is even harder to navigate on a mobile phone. If you can't or don't want to get your info from there, you're pretty much stuck with whatever ad hoc offerings you can get from your carrier -- and, like AT&T's offerings, these will only be available for certain phones.
There are also third-party apps that allow you to follow the play-by-play, though for the most part their data derives from the same sources. Plusmo Sports has NFL and NCAA widgets for a variety of platforms, both Web-based and standalone apps. Perhaps Plusmo's most innovative offering is its social features, which allow you to smack talk with others who are following the same game that you're watching intently. This can add to the fun and provide a reason to play with the widget even if you're already watching the game on your big-screen TV.