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In Sports Highlights, YouTube Is No. 1

Times Staff Writer

Within hours of last Saturday’s brawl between the University of Miami and Florida International University, dozens of football players were suspended and a TV analyst -- Lamar Thomas, a former Miami player who seemed to condone the violence -- lost his job.

Thomas had boasted to viewers that “you can’t come over to our place talking noise like that [or] you’ll get your butt beat.” Comcast Sports SouthEast edited out his inflammatory remarks before rebroadcasting the game. But Thomas’ trash talk continues online, courtesy of Rusty98UM, a Hurricanes fan who transferred his pay-per-view TV footage of the fight to YouTube, where 1.1 million users have watched the unedited video.

As the World Series begins in Detroit tonight, the episode underscores the struggle underway as professional, college and Olympic sports, along with their broadcast partners and advertisers, scramble to stay connected with young, tech-savvy sports fans whose attitude seems to be: Who needs “SportsCenter” when you can find a replay on YouTube, MySpace or hundreds of other websites with free video?

Sports leagues now risk being caught up in the same copyright concerns as Hollywood is with pirated films, TV shows and music. It also raises the question of the value of pay-per-view events if some fans can post copies of them online soon afterward.

Type “NASCAR crash” into YouTube’s search engine and it produces nearly 700 videos. “NHL fight” rewards viewers with nearly 600 action-packed clips. And “NBA” produces more than 11,500 offerings, including a 16-year-old fan’s slam-dunk highlight reel that has been watched 1.9 million times.

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Some sports videos are grainy and have scratchy soundtracks, others are culled from fans’ digital cameras or cell phones. But much of the material uploaded to YouTube and its rivals is game footage purloined from media companies that have paid billions in broadcast rights fees.

What’s on YouTube? When it comes to sports, it’s easier to ask what’s not: Arizona Cardinals Coach Dennis Green’s news conference meltdown on Monday night after losing to the Chicago Bears is online. So is network video of the first NFL touchdowns by former USC stars Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. Older events also are chronicled: Mike Tyson bites Evander Holyfield’s ear. Tiger Woods sinks the chip shot at the 2005 Masters. Doug Flutie connects on his “Hail Mary” pass. Cassius Clay drops Sonny Liston. Cal beats Stanford with “The Play.” Secretariat wins the Triple Crown.

“Technology is revolutionizing the fan experience,” said Brian Bedol, president of CBS Inc.'s college sports division. “For a sports fan, it used to be impossible to figure out how to relive memories, see things you’ve heard about but never experienced. But now, you can actually call this stuff up on demand ... now it’s all sitting there in a digital warehouse and it’s accessible.”

The Miami-FIU football brawl occurred just days after Google paid $1.65 billion for YouTube, the two-year old Mountain View firm that uploads 65,000 new videos and screens 100 million video views each day. Sports leagues can’t ignore those numbers because Google wants to capitalize on the millions of eyeballs that are glued to “the Mentos guy,” Lonelygirl15 or Dennis Green losing it.

The swift migration of sports video to the Web has prompted a flurry of deals involving online powerhouses and old-line media. CBS agreed to provide YouTube with video clips from its news, network and sports shows in exchange for a share in future online advertising revenue.

“This is a mutually beneficial business relationship that allows us to take advantage of the enormous traffic at YouTube and, at the same time, be in a position to better protect our [copyrighted] content,” said CBS’ Bedol.

Still unclear is how the new online frontier will be policed and who will profit as websites sell ads.

Federal law requires copyright holders to ask that content be taken down -- video by video -- which is time-consuming and expensive.

“We know that we need to play by the rules within that media community,” said Kevin Donahue, YouTube’s vice president of content. “We know that we will need partnerships and alliances to succeed.”

For years sports leagues have insisted that their footage appear only on their websites or on licensed broadcast partners. Now they are struggling to understand the role of online video where fans can watch their copyrighted video clips -- on someone else’s website.

The NBA regularly asks YouTube and other websites to take down footage that violates copyright agreements.

But the NHL, which needs to win back fans after a recent, year-long lockout, is leery of coming down too hard on hockey fans. The NHL has asked YouTube to pull lengthy action videos of Russian-born star Alex Ovechkin, who plays for the Washington Capitals; now the site mostly offers short highlight reels.

“We spend millions of dollars to stage the games, we created what’s a very valuable intellectual property,” said Doug Perlman, the NHL’s senior vide president of television and media ventures. “We have a young, tech-savvy fan base. We know they’re interacting with our sport very differently than in the past ... which makes it very important for us to strike the right balance.”

As for the NFL, spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league is taking “aggressive” steps to ensure its “long-standing policy” of protecting its content. The NFL uses an in-house legal counsel and an outside law firm to police Internet portals. But YouTube and other sites still have plenty of NFL game videos in their digital vaults.

Only Major League Baseball has made it clear that its footage shouldn’t play anywhere other than MLB.com and its affiliated club websites. For two years, MLB’s Advanced Media division has demanded that other websites eliminate protected material.

Each day a half dozen MLB employees scroll through hundreds of Internet sites and order website operators to remove “dozens and dozens” of copyrighted videos, said MLB Advanced Media President Bob Bowman.

MLB relies on human trackers because, “at this point, you can’t simply run a [software] script and scroll through the Internet,” said Mike Mellis, general counsel for MLB. “But it’s a tough slog because you have to go at it hour after hour.”

Even though YouTube’s search engine identifies nearly 900 “MLB” videos, relatively few include footage from baseball’s licensed broadcasts. “YouTube is a professionally run company and they are trying to accommodate us,” Bowman said.

It’s not just copyright law at stake; there also are questions of taste. Some videos, including one showing NBA players fighting, have rap soundtracks that reference rape, murder and mayhem, so YouTube cautions viewers that content may be “inappropriate for some users, as flagged by YouTube’s user community.”

But there are also plenty of clips unlikely to send lawyers to court.

Type “Saint Ignatius and Balboa” into YouTube’s search engine and up pops a home video by Bay Area resident Brendan Raher. The short film covers a memorable 1996 high school basketball playoff game between Balboa and St. Ignatius Prep.

Raher made the video as a 10-year anniversary present for his brother, Cassidy, who made nine three-point shots in a row during the win over favored Balboa. “I could only have sent that video to 10 or 20 people at most,” Raher said. “But now it’s been seen by 1,000 people, which speaks to the nature of having a site like YouTube, where you can share memories or pass them along.”

And what about Rusty98UM, the football-fight chronicler?

“My only reason for throwing the video out there was to make sure that everyone had a chance to see what happened, to see who started the fight,” said Dan Cruz, 32, an Orlando resident with season tickets to Miami home games. “It just might behoove the leagues to create their own YouTube sites.”

greg.johnson@latimes.com


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