After being rebuffed by its Time Warner sibling AOL on a proposal last year to build a major sports portal together, Sports Illustrated is nailing down a deal to expand its relationship with Yahoo, presenting a planned "My SI" desktop application to agencies and striving internally to improve its online video.
Under the deal with Yahoo, the Yahoo Sports home page will feature Sports Illustrated news, columns and photos in sections broken out from the rest of the content and highlighted. In exchange, Sports Illustrated's site has removed its own fantasy game and now links to Yahoo Sports' fantasy games instead -- calling Yahoo Sports its "featured partner."
'Shot in the arm'
"SI has typically struggled to keep up with ESPN, CBS Sportsline and now Fox Sports," said from Jeff Lanctot, VP-general manager of Avenue A/ Razorfish. "So it's not a surprise they'd turn to one of the big portals for a shot in the arm."
Executives at Sports Illustrated and Yahoo declined to comment, although it is known that the senior management at SI firmly believes it is creating a multimedia brand to rival ESPN.
ESPN was the web's leading sports destination in June, with 16 million unique visitors, up 26% from June 2005, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. Fox Sports on MSN attracted 11.7 million visitors, up 28%; Yahoo Sports followed with 10.1 million, down 1% from last June. CBS Sportsline, which drew 7.9 million unique visitors, had a major spike, up 80%.
SI.com trailed those destinations, with 6.9 million visits in June, up 19%. But it still beat AOL Sports, which only drew 6.2 million unique visits, down 9%. All the content providers and big web players have long battled for partners and position because they see the audiences and dollars coming. (One industry executive estimated that Sports Illustrated Digital might provide as much as 15% of Sports Illustrated's net income this year.)
ESPN digital: A model for Disney
ESPN had been an MSN partner in a content deal but the team split up when ESPN took its web operations entirely in-house two summers ago. Disney President-CEO Bob Iger now holds up ESPN's digital media offering as a model for the whole company.
MSN replaced ESPN with Fox Sports and gave News Corp.'s online sports business a growth spurt. But Mr. Lanctot noted that Fox Sports' tie-up with MSN predates News Corp.'s recent interactive focus and digital-buying spree, so Fox may eventually take its interactive sports offerings back in-house, too.
So why wouldn't Time Warner, parent of Sports Illustrated and AOL, work internally to build its online sports play? AOL's surprising aloofness last year obviously played a role.
Yahoo's fantasy sports
But according to several digital-media buyers, Sports Illustrated may have caught a break back then because Yahoo has a killer app in its fantasy league. "Yahoo Sports is not known as great content for sports, but it has driven tons of traffic with fantasy property," said Patrick Benson, senior VP-director of digital marketing, DeutschMedia. Yahoo had 4 million unique fantasy users last year and hopes to double that in 2006.
"I wouldn't underestimate the fantasy-sports aspect of this," Mr. Lanctot said. "Yahoo is seen as having credibility in sports world because of strong fantasy product."
On Aug. 21, Sports Illustrated's print edition will also start an 18-week run of SI Fantasy Plus supplements to 750,000 of its roughly 3.2 million subscribers.
At the same time, Sports Illustrated is pitching advertisers on a downloadable application that will aggregate a user's favorite sports content into a single area on a user's desktop -- something that too many media companies are reluctant to doing because users may make less frequent visits to web pages.
In September, ESPN's Sports Nation will unveil online tools for fans to create profiles, contribute to sports blogs, post opinions and link to favorite articles -- creating a sort of MySpace for sports fans.
Buyers suggested that Sports Illustrated would be wise to add similar components to its new product. "Let's face it, sports fans are experts -- or think they are anyway," Mr. Benson said. "It's wise to give them their own forum."