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SBJ/November 17 - 23, 2003/E SportsPrint All
ESPN.com over the weekend made its most ambitious foray into the broadcasting of live content, offering premium subscribers the chance to see four NCAA football games live on the site.
The offering, available to ESPN Insider subscribers, included broadcasts of TCU vs. Cincinnati, Miami vs. Syracuse, Boston College vs. Rutgers and San Diego State vs. Colorado State. The TCU-Cincinnati game was not televised, so it was available only to Insider subscribers, while the other three games were available as part of ESPN's College Game Plan.
Kyle McDoniel, director of ESPN Insider, said the latest effort is the result of the success of earlier and more cautious attempts to gauge demand for such offerings.
Earlier this season, espn.com Webcast the Sept. 20 Penn State-Kent State game. ESPN.com last season made the Miami-Rutgers and BYU-Utah games available via Webcast to Insider subscribers.ESPN.com’s Insider costs $4.95 a month or $39.95 a year.
McDoniel said all of the Webcasts have been successes, and the site is developing the technical capabilities it hopes will allow it to be more opportunistic about putting games online.
Insider, which costs $4.95 a month or $39.95 a year, has nearly 200,000 subscribers, according to ESPN executives.
Unlike the Penn State Webcast, which simply gave fans a live feed from the stadium, the four games broadcast over the weekend were to have full graphics and commentary.
ESPN.com in September drew 15.5 million unique visitors, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, a single-month record for Nielsen's rankings of sports sites.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's Ben Welter has seen just how badly things can go for a newspaper that placed its most popular content behind a subscription wall.
Startribune.com, bolstered by evidence that the NFL's Vikings account for more than twice the traffic of any other area of the site, in August 2002 launched Purple Plus, which for $29.95 a year gave fans access to team-specific audio, video, commentary, analysis and live chats.
A year later, having been inundated with complaints from fans and crippled by the team's poor performance in 2002, the Star-Tribune stopped charging for Purple Plus after failing to draw more than 600 subscribers, according to Welter, editor of startribune.com.
The Star-Tribune is one of a handful of newspapers that have tried, with mixed results, to emulate the model created by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which in 2001 launched Packer Insider and now boasts more than 12,000 subscribers to the $34.95-a-year offering.Belo Corp.’s Cowboys Plus service has been a big success, as have the Cowboys.
While the recent launch by Belo Corp. of Cowboys Plus has by all accounts been a huge success, the failure of the Star-Tribune's Purple Plus and the slow start of the Chicago Tribune's Bears Today suggest that an avid local fan base is merely one of several necessary ingredients for building a profitable subscription business.
Cowboys Plus, like Packer Insider, launched with the backing of a large base of displaced fans that their counterparts in other markets say is practically a necessity. Cowboys Plus, which combines the resources of Belo's Dallas media properties (The Dallas Morning News, WFAA-TV and Texas Cable News), drew 1,500 subscribers within a week of launch. While Belo executives would not disclose subscriber numbers to date, they said a significant segment of their "strong growth" comes from those who do not have the constant exposure to local media coverage of the Cowboys.
"Very few sports entities out there have this type of following," said John Banks, senior editor of Belo Interactive's Dallas Web sites.
The failure of the Star-Tribune perhaps suggests that without a heavy proportion of displaced fans, media companies have to work that much harder to provide content that local fans will not find anywhere else.
Purple Plus promised subscribers a slate of multimedia content and periodic contributions from the paper's sports staff, but Star-Tribune executives discovered they could not consistently churn out exclusive content unless they had a staff devoted solely to Purple Plus. Welter said he could not make a case for such an investment without at least 1,500 subscribers.
Like the Star-Tribune, the Chicago Tribune has had trouble attracting subscribers since launching Bears Today before the 2003 season. To date, Tribune spokeswoman Patti Wetli said, Bears Today, a $29.95-a-year product that gives fans access to commentary and analysis from the Tribune's sportswriters, has only 650 subscribers.
But unlike its counterpart in Minneapolis, the Tribune is committed to going beyond this season, according to Wetli, who attributed low subscriber sign-ups to the Bears' poor on-field performance.
"We're still in the too-early phase," Wetli said, noting that despite the numbers, the Tribune expects Bears Today to be profitable in the first year.
Victories seem to go a long way in jump-starting a subscription product, something the Star-Tribune discovered after the Vikings' 0-4 start in 2002, and one that the Belo folks do not dispute.
"Obviously, the fact that the Cowboys are 7-2, we couldn't have asked for anything better," Banks said. "If they started 1-8, we were going to be a little concerned launching a product like this."
But team success alone evidently cannot retain subscribers, something Pittsburgh Post-Gazette executives understand. After fans last season complained there was little on Black & Gold Insider ($14.95 a season, $9.95 a month) that they weren't getting from the local media, they added more audio and video content to Black & Gold Insider after a largely successful 2002 launch.
The result was a 35 percent increase in subscribers this season over last year, despite the Steelers' fall from a playoff berth to the bottom of the divisional standings, according to Debra Alward, the Post-Gazette's director of strategic planning and new media.
By not relying on the team's good fortunes, Post-Gazette executives showed they knew what the Star-Tribune's Welter learned the hard way, and what industry sources say entities like the Chicago Tribune must know if Bears Today is to achieve the success of Packer Insider and Cowboys Plus.
"The content has to be twice as good [as what's available for free]," Welter said. "You can't just cordon off your columns, photos and [audio/video content] and call it a premium product."