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On the Online Playing Field, Competition for Fans Heats Up

Sports media: Web sites scramble for their time and money as some say general interest in athletics is cooling.

May 06, 1999|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vin Scully made his name in the analog world, but he's a powerful voice in the rapidly evolving world of interactive sports media. Whenever the longtime Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster mentions the baseball team's Web site, fans flock to Dodgers.com.

Scully's ability to steer fans to the franchise's Web site was one of the few certainties to emerge about the online sports world during Interactive Sports 99 West, an industry meeting sponsored by New York-based World Research Group. Speakers appearing during last week's seminar at a Santa Monica hotel underscored that it is still too early to predict which technologies, business models and competitors will emerge victorious.

Results of surveys by the ESPN Chilton Sports Poll suggest that the online sports revolution is heating up at a time when general fan interest in sports is cooling. Interest in mainstream sports has slipped since hitting a high during the 1996 Olympic Games. The sports poll also suggests that, while sports fans are more likely than the general population to surf the Internet, nonfans are more likely to use the Internet to buy things.

"The question is whether this is a glass that's half full or half empty," said ESPN Chilton Sports Poll co-founder Rich Luker. "It's a question of whether this is an area that's yet to explode."

Content, most observers agree, will continue to be the online king. And, in sports, that means big-name players who capture a fan's heart and wallet. "When it comes to a movie, it's the stars you care about," said Clifford H. Friedman, a senior managing director of Bear Stearns & Co., which invests in interactive businesses. "You don't care if it's from Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. or Disney. And the same is true with sports. The athletes are the talent."

Los Angeles-based Athlete Direct has emerged as a leading contender when it comes to putting such influential athletes as Troy Aikman, Albert Belle and Dennis Rodman online. The sites offer exclusive commentaries from players, such as chat sessions, online games, stores chock-full of autographed merchandise--and, in Rodman's case, a decidedly quirky cartoon strip.

Privately held Athlete Direct said it isn't yet profitable because only a handful of the 80 sites it operates for athletes are operating in the black. Athlete Direct President Ross Schaufelberger maintains that more sites will turn profits in time. He also envisions Internet sites as "one of the most significant elements of an athlete's future business deals."

As big-name stars establish online beachheads, such media-savvy leagues as Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Assn. also are pitching themselves as a fan's best online friend. So, for that matter, are local sports franchises and such heavyweight online stars as ESPN.com.

It's unclear whether athletes, leagues, franchises and other sports-oriented sites will be able to overcome their diverse interests to work cooperatively as Internet commerce matures and the financial stakes rise. "It's going to remain a complicated issue," Schaufelberger said. "You have to believe that everyone would benefit from some form of cooperation."

Equally complicated is the parade of business models being developed to build online business. Some sites rely solely on revenue from subscriptions, while others generate revenue through advertising or sales of merchandise and tickets. "I can't tell you which of the many revenue streams discussed during this conference is going to be the dominant one," Friedman said.

The Dodgers, for example, have been online since 1996, but only now are taking the first, tentative step toward establishing a fee-based site. Later this week, the Dodgers will "send out an online survey asking fans what they'd like to see [on a premium site] if there was going to be a premium site," said Ben Platt, the Dodgers' Web master. "Our whole approach has been to go slow."

The Baltimore Ravens, in contrast, are charging headlong toward a premium site where NFL fans will have to pay for access. The football team's Web site is the result of a $105-million, 20-year marketing agreement that the Ravens signed with PSINet, an East Coast Internet service provider.

The deal involves naming rights to the football team's new stadium, signage, and what PSINet Sports Marketing Director Sara Gilbertson described as "the Ravenization" of PSINet's online presence. "Nobody knew who we were," Gilbertson said. "We needed to make a marketing splash. The goal is to turn this into a business for both PSINet and the Ravens."

Web sites operated by individual franchises have their own set of online problems. The National Hockey League, for example, prohibits franchises from selling merchandise online, demanding that online sales move through the league's Web site. Also, Web hits for most franchise sites fall dramatically after the season and fans have moved on to other sports.

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