On Sept. 27, 1998, the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals clashed in a football game that would have been forgotten long ago if not for Stan Honey. He didn't pounce on a fumble or score a touchdown, but the scientist was the undisputed star even though fans in the stands noticed nothing different.
On the couches and La-Z-Boys of America, however, it was a different story. The TV audience was knocked out by an electronic yellow string stretched across the field like a fuzzy clothesline. ESPN had unveiled Honey's head-snapping invention, the virtual first-down line. It wasn't really on the field, of course, but through the genius of Honey and his team of scientists at Sportvision Inc. in Chicago, it sure seemed like it. After fans got over the shock, they loved how it made the game easier to follow. The virtual first-and-ten line is now a staple of network football coverage. "It's become so much a part of the fabric of [football on TV] that if people don't see it, their reaction is that the telecast is substandard," says Jed Drake, an ESPN senior vice-president.
In the 1960s, slo-mo and instant replays changed the way fans watched televised games. Now, Honey is leading a high-tech revolution at least as eye-catching. Sportvision has been rolling out gadgets for all the major sports, including the PGA Tour, NASCAR, and Major League Baseball, for which it whipped up "K-Zone," a virtual box that frames a batter's strike zone and pinpoints the location of each pitch. The latest gee-whiz creation from Honey's lab will debut during Fox broadcasts of the World Series, which begins on Oct. 22. "PITCHf/x" will track the arc of pitches, giving fans a better look at how a curveball curves and a fastball darts.
In college, Honey might have been voted least likely to reinvent sports on TV. An electrical engineer educated at Yale and Stanford, his early interests included meteorology and developing radar to detect underwater ice. In 1983 he helped start Etak Inc., which pioneered auto navigation and digital mapping before being sold to News Corp. (NWS ) in 1993.
Honey, 50, went to work for News Corp. as its chief technology officer just as Rupert Murdoch was nabbing National Hockey League games for Fox. Soon, Honey and Fox Sports CEO David Hill were brainstorming ways to jazz up the NHL, a ratings slacker. Out of the talks came a wild idea: electronically "lighting up" the puck, making it easier to follow on TV. The glowing puck took to the ice in the 1996 NHL All-Star Game. While ratings improved, "the diehards whined and complained, but they still watched," recalls Honey.
When Fox and the NHL parted company three years later, the plug was pulled on the glowing puck. But Honey had the makings of an innovative business. These days, investors in privately held Sportvision, which Honey co-founded in 1998, include Motorola (MOT ), Roy Disney, Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.
Honey is far from the geek his résumé might suggest. When PITCHf/x first pops up on TVs, Honey, an avid sailor, will be hunkered down in Spain awaiting the start of November's Volvo Ocean Race. He's the navigator for Team2 ABN-AMRO in the seven-month, around-the-world race. "It was kind of like being a Dodger fan and getting a call to put your uniform on," says Honey.
While Honey charts a course, Sportvision engineers are working on the Next Big Thing. One of the biggest, says CEO Hank Adams, is a new generation of data-fed computer games that will blur the line between real and virtual sports. How blurred? Soon a race-car game may put a joystick jockey on the track with real NASCAR drivers tearing around a real oval in real time. "Ultimately, we want to put you in the race," says Adams. Thanks to Honey, that's no longer a virtual goal.
By Mark Hyman