Soccer fans set for up close and personal 3-D experience

By Neil Maidment

LONDON (Reuters) - Soccer fans could soon get closer than ever to the action without even leaving their chairs as 3-D TV gets set to revolutionize sports events this year.

Sky and Disney's ESPN will both launch 3D networks in the coming months, with ESPN airing a minimum of 85 sporting events, including 25 World Cup finals matches from South Africa.

Sky will get the ball rolling Sunday by filming the English Premier League clash between Arsenal and Manchester United in 3-D and broadcasting it to selected pubs across the United Kingdom and Ireland.

It will be the first live 3-D TV sports event broadcast to a public audience anywhere, according to the company part-owned by News International.

Sky 3D will be launched in April before it is later made available to all Sky+HD customers for a wider range of content including documentaries and movies.

Gerry O'Sullivan, Sky's Director of Strategic Product Development, said in a statement: "2010 is the year for 3D TV.

"People have already embraced 3D cinema and because Sky's 3D service uses the same kind of technology, we're confident there will be demand for sport, movies, concerts and drama in 3D."

The move into 3-D broadcasting follows hotly on the success of James Cameron's 3-D movie Avatar, which this week became the highest-grossing movie worldwide partly due to 3-D engagements.

The sci-fi film had racked up a box office total of $1.859 billion Tuesday.

ESPN will roll out its 3-D network in June beginning with the World Cup soccer match between hosts South Africa and Mexico in Johannesburg.

Separately, Discovery Communications Inc. said it had joined ranks with Sony Corp and IMAX Corp to launch a dedicated 3-D network in the United States beginning in 2011.

The network will feature history, space, adventure shows and children's programs and reflects a strong trend in the entertainment industry to harness 3-D in the home.

(Editing by Justin Palmer; to query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)