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

MSNBC name gives way in sports site address to nbcsports.com

Until recently, there was an urgent, sometimes expensive emphasis on branding for sports Web sites. Nevertheless, some were saddled with brands that either were not memorable or didn't say "authority on sports" clearly enough. Remember espn.sportszone.com?

MSN and NBC apparently came to the same determination about msnbcsports.com: Beginning last week, the site was to be officially rebranded nbcsports.com.

The joint venture between Microsoft and NBC continues, but with events such as the NBA Finals, the Triple Crown, NASCAR and the Olympics coming in the next nine months, the time seemed right to clean up the URL and promote the network whose sports coverage the site can promote and benefit from.

This coincides with the site's push to bolster content through partnerships, such as one with the Daily Racing Form to enhance horse racing coverage and another in the works to bolster NASCAR coverage.

The new URL will receive considerable promotion during NBC's NBA playoff coverage and in other NBC programming. No media buys are planned, but they haven't been ruled out, said Peter Dorogoff, msnbc.com marketing communications director.

Some brand confusion will remain. Contractual obligations require NBC to give some residual promotion to NBCi, so in a much-played NBC ad recently, NASCAR fans were urged to visit nbci.com/nbcsports. Dorogoff said the combination branding will continue for a short time.

The URL change aligns NBC's online sports brand with its online Olympics brand, nbcolympics.com. That site is not MSN-produced — its developer and host deals are being negotiated now by the network since the loss of partners Quokka and LogicTier, respectively — but MSN is involved heavily in the negotiations for that deal.

  RIVALS RELAUNCHES: The former high school sports component of rivals.com has been relaunched as rivalshigh.com by AllianceSports, which bought assets of RivalNetworks in April.

Where rivals.com had 88 high school sites in the network, rivalshigh.com has 30, some with regional coverage, and does not expect to add more than 10, said Bobby Burton, a former RivalNetworks vice president and general manager who was hired by AllianceSports to head its college and high school networks.

AllianceSports bought RivalNetworks' logos and trademarks, URLs and source code in mid-May. Terms were not disclosed.

Rivalshigh.com joins AllianceSports' college and recruiting networks, also being reconstructed from former RivalNetworks sites. Burton said there will be between 100 and 120 sites in all, considerably fewer than rivals.com, which fluctuated between 500 and 700.

Rivals.com adopted a premium-site model in its last several months, and the six-figure revenue encouraged Burton to plan premium sections for the relaunched college sites. The high school sites will remain free, depending on revenue sharing from sponsorships sold by AllianceSports and e-commerce generated through affiliate relationships with manufacturers of institutional sporting goods, he said.

The high school section of rivals.com grew from 400,000 page views a day to 2.5 million in the year it operated, and Burton is confident the section can become profitable fairly quickly, despite the soft ad market. He said the venture has long-term fu7nding but would not provide specifics. AllianceSports hired only six people from RivalNetworks to work on the high school section, and Burton insisted the company and its affiliate sites all understand there is no better current arrangement for publishers who want their sites online and promoted.

"High school publishers are very different than publishers of some other avenues, like pro sites or college," Burton said. "These guys really are doing it for the love of the game. I don't think there are delusions of grandeur. I think everyone knows it's time to put their nose to the grindstone and build a business."

AllianceSports is also in the application service provider business. It hosts and manages software for more than 1,000 sites for small businesses, churches, etc. These services begin at $39.95 a month, and Burton said they would be offered to sports fans who want to produce their own unofficial sites.

Noah Liberman can be reached at nliberman@amcity.com.

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