Sports Web sites rely on strength of TV networks

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Even as sports sites become some of the hottest online real estate around, the most successful ones are still getting a boost from an older, off-line medium.

The two most trafficked sports sites, ESPN SportsZone and CBS SportsLine, are linked with their TV networks, as are CNNSI, Fox Sports and MSNBCSports. Those sites and even ones without a TV link realize the importance of that connection in a still-burgeoning new medium.

A recent Jupiter Communications study found that more than 50% of respondents visited a sports Web site as a direct result of the mention of a URL during a sports broadcast; 33% said they visited a sports site while watching a sporting event on TV. The benefit to sites with TV connections is that even advertisers that are reluctant to go online may be persuaded by the fact they can reach the same targeted crossover audience with much less expensive online advertising, Jupiter analysts said.

SPORTING NEWS SEEKS TV PARTNER

One of the largest sports sites without a TV partner is Sporting News Online, which recently won the American Society of Magazine Editors first award for general excellence in new media. However, one executive said the site is looking for a TV partner.

"When CBS cut the deal with SportsLine, [SportsLine's] traffic went through the roof. We recognize that, and we have some things in the works," said Mark Newman, Sporting News Online general manager. "It is our goal to have some visibility in the TV arena."

The site has cut a deal with sports syndicator Raycom to do six special-event TV shows this year that will reach 80% of households, Mr. Newman said. That's a good start, but Sporting News wants a more permanent deal.

Mark Mariani, exec VP of SportsLine, noted that in February 1996, SportsLine had 4 million page views per month; in February 1997 (the last month before the CBS deal), the traffic was 21 million page views. This February, Sports

Line's traffic hit 127 million page views, according to audited numbers from Internet Profiles Corp.

Mr. Mariani said some of the traffic increases were normal growth from good programming, but he added there's no denying the tremendous boost from CBS.

SPORTSZONE, SPORTSLINE DUEL

"We get a much larger promotional play than CNNSI or ESPN SportsZone, which maybe get up to a 1.0 [Nielsen Media Research] rating compared to the CBS network, which sometimes gets as much as a 20 rating, like during the NCAA playoffs," he said.

Still, ESPN's cable network pioneered sports-dedicated programming and also took an early online lead over the competition. ESPN SportsZone is now dueling with SportsLine for top site status, based on monthly traffic reports.

"We have some very tough competition from CBS, CNNSI and others. But we were the first ones aggressively out there, and [other sites] are good at aping the things we've already done well," said Geoff Reiss, senior VP, ESPN Internet Ventures. "It sounds cliched, but we have to keep regularly reinventing ourselves."

CONSOLIDATION WON'T HAPPEN

Mr. Reiss predicts the consolidation so widely talked about in general in the online industry will not happen in the sports sector. And while none of these sites is yet profitable, they're considered among the best online bets in terms of advertising and overall revenue-generating potential, according to analysts.

"It's simply too good a category for anybody to cede to anyone else," Mr. Reiss said.

But even while the sports sites haggle over which has more page views or squabble over particular advertisers, they realize they're all in the online game together.

"It's hard to take shots at the competition because the real competition in many ways is traditional media," said SportsLine's Mr. Mariani. "What's ultimately the play here is we're going to have to have TV speak to the Internet and have the Internet speak back to the TV."

But the competition may get even tougher. Jupiter is recommending high-profile sporting events such as the Super Bowl and World Series sell digital rights separately from TV rights.

Copyright May 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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