SBJ/February 2 - 8, 2004/SBJ In Depth

The best pro team Web sites

It began as so many of these Internet-born rumors do, with a new post on a message board, this one on the official site of the NHL's Washington Capitals.

"Sportsnite just reported JAGR TO RANGERS DONE."

The first entry, posted at 5:59 p.m. on a recent Wednesday night, one hour before the Capitals were to play Toronto, asked succinctly: "anyone confirm?" At 6:02 came the response: "nope not yet."

A minute later, there were more details. "I notice, right now, that Jgr [sic] is RIGHT BEHIND Joe B and Locker. BS rumor. Man, this is the 3rd time this has happened this season."

In the next three minutes, the thread grew longer, with six Caps fans — including "Lordjupiter," who was posting his 1,520th message on the board, and "Cilla," another regular who was on post number 2,784 — posting messages reporting that they, too, were watching the pregame show and saw Jaromir Jagr, in home colors, warming up.

More data from this study:
League reports
Top-ranked teams among four major leagues
View from the top
We are the champions
Total unique users to Web sites
Team Web site traffic
Jagr eventually would be traded to the Rangers, but it wouldn't happen for another two days.

Just another night in the dot.com friendly world of the Capitals, who rode high marks for their site's fan interactivity to a No. 1 ranking in the 2004 SBJ/UMass survey of the 131 team Web sites from Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the NFL, NBA and NHL. (For full survey results, click here).

The surveyors — 12 students in the school's sports management program — scored the sites in four categories: content, commerce, fan interactivity and design/technical. The Caps ranked eighth in content, 12th in design/technical and fourth in commerce. They tied for first in fan interactivity, not a surprise for a franchise that is owned in principal by Ted Leonsis, vice chairman of America Online, a company that has made the creation of community its mantra.

"We're big on the idea of community here," said Kurt Kehl, who as senior director of communications for the Capitals also oversees new media. "But there's only so much that the Caps themselves can generate of that. It's the people who log on to our Web site who create that community."

More than 7,700 fans have registered to post messages on the Capitals Web site. That's more than half the size of the average home crowd at Caps games this season. So popular are the posts, the team made room for two or three message boards on its main page as part of its latest redesign.

While the posts tend toward the bile you'd expect from fans of a team on the skids, they occasionally offer invaluable feedback that affects decisions across the organization.

Days after the Caps opened their season this year, fans had created a thread — the message board term for several posts on a topic — that was critical of the scoreboard video shown when the team hit the ice. Many fans said they wanted the video to get to the player images more quickly.

The team changed the intro.

"We watch the boards to see what fans say about most of the things we do," said John Vidalin, the team's senior director of marketing. "One of the beautiful things about it is that it gives fans a chance to speak honestly in a realm that they're comfortable with. And it's a place where they can connect with each other and with the team."

Though it is clear that the Capitals' boards are among the more active and comprehensive in sports, they're a small part of the reason the site scored so well on the survey, as only one of 40 questions covered by the students dealt with message boards.

The survey looked more at whether features existed on the site than whether the surveyors liked them. More questions were quantitative than qualitative. For example, of the seven questions that address design and technical, only one asks surveyors about "overall aesthetic appeal." Others deal with issues such as load time, accessibility via major search engines, and whether the site uses animation or audio on its opening page.

Even content questions — which account for about 44 percent of the overall scores — address quantity more than quality. Only one of 18 content questions asked surveyors to judge the quality of the editorial material provided. (For complete methodology, click here.)

While this was a survey of team sites and not league sites, those lines blur in some areas.

MLB's centralized Internet model makes it difficult to sort out team design and content from league design and content. On the whole, the survey indicates that the model is working for most teams. MLB team sites had the highest average score of any of the leagues. The investment that the league has made in its site has guaranteed that no team is left behind. In the overall rankings, 25 of the 30 MLB clubs ranked in the top half of all sites.

The down side of MLB's model is that it also makes it difficult for a team to achieve the spectacular. The San Francisco Giants, Oakland A's and Texas Rangers cracked the overall top 20. Three MLB teams made the top 10 in fan interactivity, but no MLB team made the top 10 in any of the other three categories.

NBA teams scored high in design/technical and in commerce. Six of the top 10 teams in design/technical were from the NBA. Seven of the top 10 in commerce were NBA franchises.

While the NBA has given teams increasing freedom to shape the look and content of their sites, the league still plays a heavy role in making sure the sites are designed efficiently and work smoothly. And all NBA team sites link to team pages from the nba.com store run in conjunction with Amazon.com and Foot Locker.

"The operational aspects of the site, like hosting and bandwidth, those are elements where we see the economies of scale," said Brenda Spoonemore, senior vice president of interactive services for NBA Entertainment. "We weed most of that out at the league level."

NBA teams are increasingly on their own when it comes to content, evolving away from a template system that the league put in place three years ago. Few fared well in the content category. Only the Suns, who had the third-highest overall score, cracked the top 45 in content.

The NHL's highest scores came in fan interactivity. Four of the top 10 finishers in that category were hockey teams.

The only one of the five leagues surveyed that did not fare well in any area was the MLS. Soccer teams had the lowest average score, with eight of 10 placing in the bottom quarter and six finishing in the bottom 10.

The team with the lowest overall score: the Colorado Rapids of MLS. As recently as a week ago, the Rapids site led with the news that the team had "dropped a 2-0 decision to the Kansas City Wizards tonight at Arrowhead Stadium."

The Rapids season ended on Nov. 8.

The vast majority of teams manage to keep their sites current.

Here's a look behind some of the higher scoring sites in each category:

Content

NFL teams occupied eight of the top 10 spots in the content category, including the top five spots, held, in order from first to fifth, by the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans and New York Giants. The league held all of the top 10 spots in the last survey, conducted two years ago.

The Cleveland Browns rank first in content, thanks to a heavy investment in multimedia.
With only one game a week, the NFL lends itself to the creation of original content, particularly player features and multimedia. Many NFL team sites view themselves as places that fans go for behind-the-scenes access they won't find elsewhere on the Internet, in the newspaper or on TV or radio.

Surveyors ranked the Browns first in content for the second time in two years.

"Cold hard football is the base of our content," said Amy Gretsinger, a manager of new media for the Browns. "But we'll go to a player's house and do a version of MTV Cribs. Or we'll go bowling with a player.

"We've got free rein and access to players in ways that other media outlets don't have. We try to make the best use of that."

The Browns have invested heavily in multimedia, creating an online television show similar to Fox Sports' "Best Damn Sports Show Period" that is recorded each week, and a weekly online radio show that airs live and then is archived. The team hopes to expand both shows to twice weekly next season, Gretsinger said.

Multimedia content is particularly popular with the large network of displaced Browns fans who remain ardent followers of their team but no longer have access to local coverage. Viewership of multimedia offerings on the site has increased fivefold since 1999, Gretsinger said.

"Fans have really become dependent on some of our shows and excited about what we're going to show next," Gretsinger said. "If you're a Browns backer in Arizona, we're where you're going for your fix."

Design/technical

The Phoenix Suns tried to break the cookie-cutter look vith a vertical logo treatment.
When the Phoenix Suns relaunched their site at the start of this season, they went well outside of the templates that had given many NBA team sites a cookie-cutter look. Instead of the banner that runs across the top of most sports sites, the Suns opted to put their logo down the left side, creating a more vertical look that meshes with basketball.

"Basketball is an extremely vertical game," said Jeramie McPeek, the Suns' director of publications and manager of the site. "We thought this would allow us to use bigger pictures and focus on what the guys do best. It was something that no other NBA team had ever done, but the league was very supportive of it.

"We all had the cookie-cutter look originally to get us up and running. But ever since then [the league] has worked hard to cooperate with us and help us achieve our own goals to make the sites look as unique as we want them to."

The Suns site ranked third among all sites overall, finishing second in design/technical and third in commerce. The Suns also ranked eighth in fan interactivity and 16th in content.

The Suns are among the more active creators of original content in the NBA, taking fans into the war room on draft night and behind the scenes at practices that are closed to crews from local media outlets.

"The biggest key is access," McPeek said. "We're around the players every day. We have more access than the local newspapers do. Everyone within the company works hard to get us places we want to be."

Commerce

Four of the top six Web sites in the commerce department belong to NBA teams.
Four of the top six teams in the commerce category were from the NBA: the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers. Eighteen NBA teams ranked in the top 30.

The high scores were driven by the range of merchandise available, structure of ticketing options and integration of local sponsors into the site. The NBA has stressed all three areas in discussions with teams. While teams from the other leagues score highly in some segments of commerce, the NBA fares best across the board.

About 65 percent of all NBA individual game tickets are sold online, as opposed to at ticket windows or by phone. MLB sold 7.4 million tickets through mlb.com last season, an increase of 90 percent over the 2002 season.

"When I talk about what's important with the teams," Spoonemore said, "it's tickets, tune-in and revenue."

The tune-in piece gets back to content and community, two areas in which some teams clearly outdistance others.

"We talk about the Internet as a huge part of everything that we do," said Vidalin, the Capitals' marketing director. "Every meeting that we have, when we talk about a new promotion, a new ticket package, a sponsor relationship, we're talking about what we can do with the Web. You have to, because it's such a great tool to build community and to engage your fans.

"Culturally, it's ingrained in us."

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