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SHOOTING TO SCORE ON THE 'NET PRO SPORTS LEAGUES GOING TO THE WIRE FOR MEDIA-SAVVY FANS

By Published on .

Nothing but net" is taking on new meaning for pro sports leagues.

The NFL, NBA and NHL all are planning to make a run at the Internet or commercial online services to market to a new generation of media-savvy fans.

The National Football League will be the first to tackle the Internet when it launches NFL Sideline on the World Wide Web on April 10.

The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League are just now beginning to play the online game. Both are planning to develop Internet sites; the NHL also is considering an online service tied to the Microsoft Network.

Web sites and commercial online services are attractive to the NFL and its ballplay-ing brethren for several reasons. The demographic profile of the Internet's average user-educated, upscale 18-to-34-year-old men-matches up well with each league's fan constituency. And given the global reach of the Internet, a Web site will be a valuable fan development vehicle in foreign markets for these increasingly global-minded sports leagues.

But the first online endeavors are designed to educate the leagues about the media landscape of tomorrow.

NFL Sideline (http://nflhome.com) will be open only from April 10 through the end of the month. Its primary purpose is to hype and cover the 1995 NFL college draft, taking place in New York April 22-23.

Visitors to the site can access information about top prospects, the scheduled order of selection and the positional draft needs of each NFL team.

The site will offer real-time coverage of the draft, complete with commentary from NFL experts and interviews with drafted players. Fans will also be able to send messages to each team if they want to criticize or praise picks or contribute their insights.

In addition, the NFL will use its site to promote the new and improved World League, which relaunches April 8 in six cities in five European countries. World League coverage will include schedules, scores, recaps and team profiles. The World League is a joint venture of the NFL and News Corp., which owns Fox.

The NFL also plans to bring its sponsors online but declined to provide details.

The leagues intend to use online services to hawk licensed products, but not before credit-card security concerns are addressed.

In the meantime, NFL Sideline will promote an 800-number that users can call to order an NFL Draft Day cap. NFL Sideline will also hold contests with licensed NFL products as prizes.

The league will assess results of the Web site at the end of the month but may return with a remodeled venue later this year.

"We believe interactive media and football is a natural marriage," said Ann Kirschner, the NFL's VP-programming and media development. "But we want to go through an evaluation period to see just what the Internet really offers our fans."

Ms. Kirschner envisions a site with sponsor signage and showrooms stocked with licensed products. Visitors could even view sponsors' commercials or download kits that include coupons that can be printed out and redeemed at local retail outlets.

In the meantime, the NFL is getting aggressive in other interactive formats, be it online-it has been with Prodigy exclusively for over a year but is looking to expand to other services-or CD-ROMs (several licensed products are already on the market).

Interactive media and the sports leagues are a natural fit because of the massive amount of content each league churns out. Every day produces new scores and highlights that require adjusted league standings and player updates.

Hence Microsoft's "Complete NBA," a CD-ROM/online product crammed with over 12,000 pages of statistics, histories and biographies of every team and player in NBA history.

The NBA also is considering building its own Web site, and has been looking to computer sponsor IBM Corp. for assistance.

"We are intrigued by the whole Internet concept and the interest it has attracted," said Ed Desser, president of NBA Television Ventures and leader of the NBA's multimedia task force. "We are in the midst of developing a plan of attack, but it's not well-enough formulated to talk about."

The NHL is singing a similar tune. At the moment, the fate of its first Internet site is tied up in efforts to sign a major technology partner.

"We are looking into what we should do in this area," said Rick Dudley, senior VP-chief operating officer of NHL Enterprises. "We are being pursued by Internet agencies and [are] listening to what they have to say, but we're looking at the big picture. We want to align ourselves with a big technology company-that's our major priority."

In the meantime, the NHL's techno-minded fans can play with licensed CD-ROMs like "The Hockey News." An NHL encyclopedia on CD-ROM is in the works, and Mr. Dudley said the NHL is looking into creating a product for Microsoft's forthcoming online service.

Some sports teams have opened their own Web sites, including the Seattle Mariners of Major League Baseball and the NHL's San Jose Sharks. Mr. Dudley said the NHL's future technology partner shouldn't be concerned about conflicts: "Everyone will be on the same page, but there will be room for flexibility."

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