SBJ/June 18 - 24, 2001/E Sports

Baseball America bags 1,000 online subs in 2 weeks

In two weeks, Baseball America garnered 1,000 subscriptions to the new online version of its magazine, Baseball America Online, representing a 4 percent increase in paid subscribers, a significant jump in the magazine industry.

The online subscription costs $36 a year, the biweekly print edition $49.85. Publisher Lee Folger would not give the operating expenses of the project, but did say, "I think we feel like it's been a success already. We are having to combat the false perception that you could get all the magazine for free on the site already. It's also a test: If we ask you to write a check for something and you don't think it's worthwhile, we need to know why."

The online magazine contains much of each print edition, plus extra in-depth information that didn't fit the print edition. Folger sees several benefits. International postage can run more than $100 a year and make foreign subscriptions loss-leaders, even at their higher subscription rates. An online subscription makes money and "arrives" immediately, a big improvement over slow international mail.

"We also like that we're interacting with our customers directly, which is important for a small media company that depends on selling its ancillary publications, like yearbooks," Folger said. "We can't do this as easily with people who buy us at Barnes & Noble."

Folger does not see the online version as a way to encourage people to graduate to the print version. He believes each version appeals to different styles of information-gathering, especially the more detailed hard-core information online.

Some print subscribers have canceled in favor of the cheaper online version, not necessarily a desirable outcome, but Folger said research showed some of them were planning to cancel the print subscription anyway, under the impression that the free online version was the complete magazine.

"There have been a few examples of traditional print publications selling online, such as The Wall Street Journal, which [like Baseball America] has a rabid fan base, in this case for financial information," said Patrick Keane, vice president and senior analyst at Jupiter Research, a division of Jupiter Media Metrix. "This works for what you can broadly define as trade publications."

For that reason, apparently, broader-based sports magazines have shied away from significant co-publishing online. Sports Illustrated leaves a lot of material on the editing-room floor when producing the weekly print magazine, and its Web site, cnnsi.com, runs roughly 150 items a week from SI writers, most of it not concurrently in the magazine and all of it free.

CNNSI.com vice president and general manager Steve Robinson was impressed with Baseball America's numbers and the notion of reaching overseas readers profitably. But he said: "The simple answer is that we have no immediate plans to charge for writers right now, and we're not posting much from the magazine, so it's not an issue. If you want to blue-sky it, down the line, five to seven years from now, it's possible essentially all magazine content will be delivered online. But the act of sitting and thumbing through is so fundamental still, it's not going away."

 ONLINE DOMINANCE CLOSER: In just more than two years, the number of companies controlling 60 percent of the time users spend online dwindled to 14 in May, down from 110 in March 1999, according to research firm Jupiter Media Metrix. Its conclusion is that market dominance is possible, a contrast to the assumptions of a few years ago, which held that the potentially infinite number of online "channels" made for a level playing field.

That may not come as a surprise to the folks at AOL and Microsoft, who have been planning for this day for a long time, but the numbers are still sobering: Only four companies now combine to control 50 percent of the online user minutes; two years ago it was 11 companies.

Mergers and acquisitions, the big companies' increased ability to differentiate their content from that of the upstarts, and economies of scale are the reasons adduced by Jupiter Media Metrix.

The top four online properties are the AOL Time Warner network of sites (32 percent of user time), Microsoft sites (7.5 percent), Yahoo! (7.2 percent) and Napster (3.6 percent). Juno, eBay, EA Online and its applications, Excite and iWon are the next five, with between 1.9 percent and 1 percent of the user audience.

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

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