Jabbour, an avid runner for 11 years, is a competitive long distance runner and nationally ranked in his age group as an indoor miler. He serves as a trustee for the Ed Stabler Syracuse Chargers National Distance Running Collection at the Syracuse University Library. He has organized two world-record relays and writes a weekly column on running for The Syracuse Newspapers.
By 1996, Jabbour had become frustrated with the lack of track and running coverage on television. Track and field athletics and footraces attract more than 10 million participants in the United States each year. But as spectator sports, they don’t generate the interest traditional media outlets desire. “I decided to do something about it other than complain,” Jabbour says. “Computers are my domain, so I decided to start broadcasting track meets on the Internet.”
TrackMeets.com was born. Its first webcast, on January 13, 1996, was a far cry from the television-quality video it produces today: Its viewership of eight saw only running text commentary on a meet, sent out live from Manley Field House. But it marked the first live coverage of a track meet on the Internet. “We set up a server, sat down, and typed away for the better part of four hours,” Jabbour says. “We were typing the names of athletes in every heat and section, entering results, and describing briefly what was going on in each race.” Organizers of the World Track and Field Championships in Seville, Spain, used the same method in summer 1999, Jabbour notes. In 1997, the company’s coverage of the Big East Indoor Championships expanded, with the posting of digital pictures of the event as it occurred. “We even had requests from a grandmother in England who wanted to watch her grandson compete,” Jabbour says. “We took pictures and posted them so she could see him.” By 1998, TrackMeets.com was putting out live audio of entire events, along with two-minute video segments. “All of these were world firsts,” says Jabbour.
As part of their senior projects, Jabbour’s engineering students had been working to push video webcast technology to its limits. They had a major breakthrough on February 27, 1999, when TrackMeets.com broadcast the entire eight-hour New York State High School Indoor Track and Field Championships live from the Carrier Dome. According to Network Computing magazine, it was the first athletic event shown live on the web. Viewers saw the event at 20 frames per second in 320- by 240-pixel resolution—about half the resolution of a television broadcast. Computer and information science major Kyeung E. Lee ’01, who has managed TrackMeets.com’s web site since last September, says the company has accomplished much in its few years of existence. “The most impressive trait is how quickly it has moved forward in technology improvements and in knowledge, learning by experience,” she says.
By summer of 1999, Jabbour says, “we knew we had something going for us.” He began working on an interdisciplinary initiative with Newhouse television-radio-film professor Michael Schoonmaker. “Kamal was talking about things that we were just as curious about,” Schoonmaker says. “In advanced classes, we had toyed with the idea of somehow putting our television production works on the web. But for the first two years, it eluded us. It seemed like it was doable, but there were missing links. It was very technologically complicated. When we consulted alumni and professionals in the field, they seemed as mystified as we were.”
TrackMeets.com creator Kamal Jabbour monitors his students' work on location at Liverpool High School.
The partnership with Jabbour built on the strengths of both schools, Schoonmaker says. The engineer had already mastered streaming video, web content, multimedia programming, and presentation, but needed Schoonmaker’s television production expertise for such things as positioning cameras, cutting from shot to shot, and packaging a broadcast. “We taught each other,” Schoonmaker says. “Though I have to say he taught me a lot more than I taught him.”
Schoonmaker, whose background includes work on the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, says track meets were the perfect content for exploring the field of web broadcasting. “With content you can actually try out new things, experiment with ways of presenting information in the sports medium, converging different kinds of information, like text and still pictures. With this content focus, we could treat TrackMeets.com as a laboratory to advance our understanding of what the Internet was about and what it could be.”
TrackMeets.com now has 40 interns. The company incorporated on January 1, and pays students in stock options. Its board of directors consists of two faculty members, two undergraduate students, two alumni, and one external consultant. “We have given the students, and the entire corporation, the challenge of competing in the real world,” Jabbour says. “We want to define the fourth medium of public communications, and push the technology further.” Lee echoes the thought, saying the company gives her great personal satisfaction. “I’m using my skills and knowledge to accomplish important tasks, not just for school projects,” she says. “It is important for me to maintain a practical, real-world perspective while developing my academic abilities. I’m still learning from my work at TrackMeets.com—I find I learn as much from my work there as I do from my academic studies.”
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