SBJ/June 4 - 10, 2001/No Topic Name

Looking to the past can answer a lot of those Web sports marketing questions

While attending the Interactive Sports West conference in Los Angeles a few weeks back, I was amazed at how many people there were asking questions about online advertising.

Executives from prominent national properties and smaller regional properties all still seemed to be asking themselves, and anyone else who would listen, why they have yet to generate even a small percentage of online advertising revenue.

The struggles are being felt by more than just the sports properties. From the third quarter of 2000, the Internet Advertising Bureau listed Internet advertising spending at just under $2 billion, a drop of 6.5 percent from the previous quarter. Additionally, last year broke a string of 19 consecutive quarters of growth in online advertising.

Sports sales executives claim that media buyers usually pass on online buys because the Web, while an ideal source for a discounted offer, doesn't compare with other traditional channels to build their brands.

The standard view of media buyers is that television viewers watch TV for entertainment and Web users go online for a specific purpose. Thus, they end up creating an entirely different marketplace for brand building and, more often than not, the buyers refuse to spend significant advertising dollars online.

Many of the property executives are quick to blame the ad recession in the general marketplace. Some cite the rise and fall of the dot.com companies and their excessive ad spending. Others simply point a finger at the banner ad as an ineffective advertising vehicle.

The reality is that they all might be right. But there is hope for properties. In order to look ahead and understand the growth of the Web in the sports marketing industry, it is important to look to the past.

In the first half of the 20th century, sports marketing as we now know it did not exist. Teams were struggling to break even and local businesses lent their support in the form of payment for outfield billboards.

These signs featured the likes of Ted Williams touting the taste of root beer. While the marketing could be categorized as elementary at best, the team was happy to have some additional revenue and the companies were satisfied with an outlet to promote their products.

Sound similar to the banner ad?

It should, because the parallels and lessons of sports marketing's past are repeating online.

As traditional sports marketing packages became more sophisticated, so too did the terminology. Created along the way were such industry staples as presenting sponsorships and category-exclusivity packages.

While in the mainstream sports marketing world these packages took as long as 50 years to evolve, sports marketers have achieved it in the online world in only a handful of years. In the future, expect such traditional sports marketing elements as naming rights and other off-line trends to find online parallels.

The ultimate lesson here is that sports properties are in large part offering the right inventory. The challenge is that in the traditional world, it took almost a century for both the business and consumer marketplace to evolve and adapt to the modern commercialized sports industry.

While the Internet moves at an accelerated pace, the path to mass advertising online still needs some time to grow — even in Internet years.

With all the reasons stated earlier, every executive — both buyer and seller — has failed to mention time: time to work through the kinks, time to understand the marketplace, time to educate.

But most sports marketers don't want to wait, and they will be the ones continuing to ask questions at future conferences and continuing not to get it long after their counterparts who look to the past and tap the brakes have made a dent in this trying industry.

And it is these sports marketers who will continue to ask at trade shows why advertisers aren't buying online and who will tout how broadband will be the ultimate delivery channel and change everything.

I guess some people will never learn.

Dan Migala is the author of "Web Sports Marketing."

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