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SBJ/September 1 - 7, 2003/E SportsPrint All
New Media Networks, an Omaha, Neb.-based provider of Internet services, is making strides in its plan to secure agreements with top college athletic programs to source their official athletic department Web sites.
Since last fall, the company has launched new official Web sites for six departments: Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Colorado and Oregon. The goal for now is to target only schools with top football programs, said Craig Petersen, the company's general manager.
New Media Networks is in preliminary discussions with several other Big Six conference schools and will likely make its first official solicitation for other schools during basketball tournament time, Petersen said. So far, the company's business has been generated through word-of-mouth, he said.
New Media Networks charges a one-time start-up fee of $20,000 to $35,000. The fee is matched by a guarantee from sales of premium services, such as video streaming. All other revenue, generated from areas such as merchandise sales or sales of Web banners, is kept by the department.
"There's no hit on the athletic department's budget line," Petersen said. "It might cost $20,000 up front, but we'll guarantee that."
New Media Networks offers athletic departments an array of services such as streaming video, video on demand, online stores and online fund raising. All of the company's technology was developed in-house, so it doesn't have to contract with another company, such as Yahoo! or RealNetworks, for streaming technology, Petersen said.
Under its agreements, New Media Networks sets up the sites, trains athletic department officials to use the technology and provides support services when needed.
New Media Networks' planned presence in the college marketplace means competition for the Official College Sports Network, which has dominated the market since 2001, when Total Sports folded. Five schools — Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Colorado and Oregon — have switched from OCSN to New Media Networks.
"They just offered us a new and better way of doing things," said Ben Boyle, assistant athletic director for Kansas State. "Our old site was just a basic Web site with press releases and some team information. Now we can put all sorts of video on it and offer fans premium video and audio content."
OCSN President Jeff Cravens said he isn't worried about the competition. OCSN has agreements with 145 schools (see OCSN adds 16 schools to network).
"We feel comfortable that we have a much better understanding of the marketplace than anybody in the space," Cravens said. "But obviously we are paying attention to what anybody else is doing."
OCSN’s golobos.com site is already up.
The Official College Sports Network has added 16 schools to its network of officially produced Web sites that now spans 145 college and university athletic departments, company President Jeff Cravens said.
Cravens said Iowa, St. John's, New Mexico, Yale and Chaminade are among the new schools signed on for the 2003-04 academic year. He said the additions speak to the network's growing and diversifying appeal in the face of increased competition (see New Media Networks targets football powers).
"It's an evolving medium, and we've got to keep working," Cravens said.
OCSN charges $5,000 for basic back-end and site management tools that allow its partner schools to operate and update their sites. Cravens said about 30 schools are customers of the basic package, introduced in April 2002. The remaining 115 schools pay from $15,000 to $25,000 for premium Web services, which include audio and video content management services through the College SportsPass product that OCSN offers in conjunction with RealNetworks Inc.
"We'd like to provide services to every athletic department and conference in the NCAA at all levels," Cravens said. "That's why we added the basic program to the premium offering, so we could have a viable alternative for schools of all sizes."
OCSN's premium partners also now will be able to use the company's newly launched Gametracker, which lets users follow real-time game action online via a graphical interface.
The enhanced real-time scoring capabilities made OCSN an easy choice for New Mexico, according to UNM associate athletic director Greg Remington.
OCSN has corporate offices in San Diego and Atlanta. Its network of schools now includes 54 percent of all NCAA Division I-A schools.
About half of the sites for the 16 additions are up and running. The rest are scheduled for launch by the middle of the month, Cravens said.
Scores and stats travel from the court to the Web site in less than a second.
Editor's note: SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Russell Adams last week received a first-hand look at the operation of usopen.org, the official Web site of the U.S. Open. The site is produced by IBM, and the company showcases the site's production each year in a tour for clients that Adams also took. He filed this report.
The tour that highlights the centerpiece of IBM's long-term financial commitment to the U.S. Tennis Association is a trip through the National Tennis Center during the U.S. Open that includes very little daylight and even less tennis.
When IBM entertains clients each year by showing them how 12 miles of cable keeps the U.S. Open moving and brings what's happening on the court to the Web, it's not the kind of production that brings tennis fans to New York every summer. It is, however, what puts IBM behind high-profile sporting events, a union that benefits millions worldwide, said Jan Butler, IBM's director of communications for worldwide sponsorship.
"We only choose sports properties where we can showcase our technology," Butler said during last week's tour.
She added that events like the Open are attractive to IBM because they allow the company to show what it can do when there is no margin for error.
"Two weeks a year," Butler said. "You can't get it wrong."
The data delivery system that lets people follow the tournament online begins with the chair umpire, who after each point punches the result into a handheld device, and a courtside statistician, who with an IBM-issued laptop enters statistical information on a computer throughout the match.
The scores and statistics go from the five main courts to a central server in the scoring room, where the data is received, coded and sent to a nearby room filled with more than 50 people who create and process information for usopen.org.
About a dozen people on one side of the room handle all of the back-end technology and infrastructure, which includes overseeing the scoring system as well as the input of audio and visual content for the site.
The audio comes from a room high above Arthur Ashe Stadium, where three radio personalities handle the 12 hours of coverage broadcast on the site each day of the tournament. Next door to the audio room is the video room, where five people produce highlight clips for several 5- and 10-minute shows that appear daily on usopen.org.
The scores and statistics travel from their origins on the court to the Web site in less than a second, speed that does not go unnoticed, said Ezra Kucharz, USTA managing director of advanced media.
"Tennis fans are ravenous," he said.
While the tech side of the Web room is making sure usopen.org visitors are getting coverage instantaneously, editors and reporters occupy another area of the room, putting about 50 stories on the site daily.
The remaining one-third of the usopen.org staff handles the business of the site, tracking traffic to advertisements and talking on the phone with the site's sponsors. Many of the advertisers, Kucharz said, are only recently realizing the number of levels of activation, and they typically ask for adjustments or to swap "creatives" over the course of the tournament.
In addition to banner presence and the sponsorship of certain sections or promotions on the site, usopen.org sponsors also get to run one 30-second spot per television highlight show and 10 to 15 30-second radio spots throughout the 12 hours of coverage each day, Kucharz said.
The only breaks in the feverish pace in the Web room occur when staffers periodically glance at the wall toward what looks like a giant dashboard. There, several counters and graphs track traffic to the site, which by midday last Tuesday (the second day of the tournament) had drawn just under 21 million page views.
While usopen.org is IBM's focus during the Open, the operation of the site is only a fraction of what goes into wiring the tournament for making maximum use of connections.
The scores and updates that get fed to the Web, for example, are also delivered to staffers at an internal bank at the tournament. There, the staffers track the tournament action — specifically, which players are about to be eliminated. Within an hour after a losing player steps off the court, the bank has tallied his or her prize money (minus taxes, fees and fines), and has a check ready for the player to pick up at the window.
"It's like running a city," Kucharz said.
ESPN.com has promoted its League Manager heavily.
Every year in late August, frustration and angst spill onto the message boards of sports Web sites, where technical glitches can derail hundreds of fantasy football drafts and leave paying customers trapped in a fantasy sports participant's worst nightmare.
"[A]fter the first pick," a posting on espn.com said Aug. 25 after a glitch caused a few hundred drafts to malfunction, "all hell broke loose and the java wouldn't work, html kept going to auto, and a few guys ended up with three kickers, 4 QB's and somehow I got Chad Pennington as my last pick and Marshall Faulk twice??"
Such problems, while fairly common and by no means exclusive to espn.com, are increasingly costly at a time when competition among fantasy providers for customers has reached unprecedented heights.
ESPN.com spent the better part of a year developing its new commissioner-style product and has promoted it heavily since the NFL draft in April. League Manager, which for $100 lets up to 20 fantasy players create a customized league, solidified espn.com's position as one of a few top-tier players in the increasingly competitive fee-based fantasy sports industry.
John Kosner, espn.com's senior vice president and general manager, said the problems were caused by a glitch in the system, and that while ESPN had not identified the source of the difficulties as of last Wednesday, it had managed to curb the number of drafts gone awry following the chaos that occurred two days earlier.
"It's something that happens around this time of year," Kosner said, noting that a "few hundred" drafts malfunctioned and those affected will not have to pay the fee. "We're working around the clock to fix it. We hate to inconvenience our players, but these things happen."
Many players complained of being denied access to the java version of the draft, or of html versions that suddenly went on auto-pilot and began picking players for the draft participants. In many cases the automatic drafts malfunctioned, with players ending up on multiple teams and picks being taken out of order.
ESPN.com responded to complaints by giving players another team or league for free, but often the same problems occurred the second and third times, according to several posted messages.
Several competitors claimed they saw a spike in sign-ups around the time League Manager was having problems. Kosner, however, said sales of League Manager were already 60 percent higher than initial forecasts, and one industry expert said he doubts the recent problems will cause espn.com to lose any ground. Information on the exact number of players registered for the game was not available.
"You're always going to have bugs in that first year," said Greg Ambrosius, president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. "It's not an easy program to write. It's very early in the year. [ESPN] is big enough to work through these problems."
Fox Sports and The Sporting News plan on Wednesday to roll out their newly designed, co-branded Web sites, reflecting the online component of their new alliance.The new-look sites will be co-branded.
The Sporting News home page is expected to feature premium content and fantasy games.
— Russell Adams