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I'm probably a bit older than most of your other Digital Media Masters," chuckles Michael Levy.

Indeed, the founder of SportsLine USA doesn't cleanly fit into the stereotype of your average, snot-nosed millionaire cyberpunk. As early as 1993, Mr. Levy said he hadn't really even heard of this new-fangled thing called the Internet.

But he did know his online services, America Online and Prodigy, specifically. Perusing them, he discovered: "Their sports coverage was really weak."

So in 1994, at age 46 and already retired, Mr. Levy conceived of SportsLine USA and launched it a year later. Mr. Levy has not only had to work to build his Web-based sports info brand, but he's had to do it while competing against the foremost brand in all of sports broadcasting, ESPN, which launched its ESPN SportsZone four months earlier.

As of March, ESPN's site was getting 6 million page views a day compared to SportsLine's 1.5 million. Both services have areas with access fees priced at $4.95 per month. SportsLine's numbers have been good enough though to attract advertisers like Coca-Cola Co., DirecTV, Oldsmobile, Perry Ellis, Visa USA and US Robotics. Still, said Mr. Levy, "Competing against a brand like ESPN is tough."

Mr. Levy is aiming to take away some of SportsZone's market share. Last March, CBS Sports stepped in to snag 22% of SportsLine in exchange for $100 million in promotion and advertising over the next five years on the CBS TV network.

More deals are in the works, like a just signed, exclusive 10-year deal to house the Web home of NBA megastar Michael Jordan. Affiliated sites devoted to celebrity-athletes will be key in SportsLine's effort to differentiate itself from ESPN SportsZone, Mr. Levy said.

On top of that, Mr. Levy just announced a deal that brings his digital sports ambitions full circle: To serve as America Online's sports information provider.

Mr. Levy predicts SportsLine, which has attracted $40 million in investment so far, will become profitable next year. He says he has little time for life outside SportsLine, and he has no plans to start a new career after this one, his fourth. "I'm going to see this one through to the end."

Betcha didn't know: You know those hand-held gadgets that let you convert English into other languages? They're called language translators and Mr. Levy invented them.

Vital Stats:
Title:President-CEO, Sports-Line USA, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Age/bio:50, born in Gainesville, Fla. B.S. in electrical engineering, Georgia Tech, 1969.
Career highlights:Electrical engineer/designer, Harris Corp., 1969-73; manager of engineering, Racal Datacom, 1973-78; co-founder, Lexicon, 1978-93; current post, 1994-.

Copyright July 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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