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

The key to building a better Web site? Follow these 5 steps

When sports sites first started appearing on the Internet, they were static in nature — just text and photos. In contrast, check out a top team site today and you'll see up-to-the-minute news and statistics, live chats, streaming webcasts, action video and interviews, as well as personal columns and diaries from players.

According to Nielsen/NetRatings, sports sites reached 35 percent of the active online population in December. That's 49 million unique visitors looking at sports sites from home and work.

Why do today's sites have these content offerings? Because the Internet, more than other mass media, has the ability to feed the insatiable appetites of sports fans. Think for a minute: Why do you go to your favorite sports site? What are you looking for? What is it that keeps you coming back?

Here's a recipe for creating a site that brings in the fans and traffic, and keeps them coming back. It's called the Value Bubble.

The Value Bubble is a Web model designed by McKinsey & Co. based on research that found that most sites were "uninspiring." It is built sequentially in five parts: attracting, engaging, retaining, learning and relating.

Phase one is "attracting," which means drawing people to your site and building traffic. How do you get people to look at your site? Be sure to post your Web address via off-line marketing, such as stadium displays or on a team's TV broadcast.

Once a user visits your site, how do you keep him there? "Engaging" is keeping the customer, getting him involved. This may start with a fan seeing cool graphics. But the top sites interact with the user from the beginning with features such as polls and message boards.

Most important, sites need content. Not just any content, but unique, in-depth content that only a sports franchise has exclusive access to — its players, coaches and owners. With all of these offerings, a site builds loyalty and a sense of community.

"Freshness and a sense of community builds retention," said Ted Leonsis, majority owner of the Washington Capitals, whose washingtoncaps.com finished first overall in the 2004 SportsBusiness Journal-University of Massachusetts survey of team Web sites.

"We constantly look at the product we deliver and are continually searching for better ways to present it to our fans. We try to build a sense of community by listening to what fans have to say about the site — their likes and dislikes and how we can make improvements. Our site needs to have fresh content and be interactive; we need to engage our fans."

"Retaining" is part three of the model process. How do you strengthen your relationship and keep users coming back? One key is updating the unique content frequently.

"At least five hours of my day are devoted to checking sports news and scores," said UMass senior Chris Valente, who follows the New York professional teams while in Amherst. "As soon as I wake up, I use the Internet to read the top stories, last night's scores and games of the day. The Internet is the most powerful medium when searching for updated sports information and news."

"Learning" and "relating" are the final two pieces of the process. Learning is critical. Content is important for getting people to the site and keeping them coming back. But how can a site help the team, as opposed to just generating content, goodwill and expenses? Use your site to gather insight into your fan base and build a database from which to market.

Then, once you have the user, and have built loyalty and learned about him, what can you do to make his next visit better? Can you relate better to the individual user?

One thing that will affect the Internet and sports sites in the near future is the continued improvement in connectivity, such as broadband and wireless Web. Nearly 50 million people connect via broadband from home. Users spend an average of 50 minutes online per day, according to December Nielsen/NetRatings data. The increases in bandwidth and online time continue to spur the use of rich media, such as video and flash-based content. Sports fans will continue to demand those to keep pace with their interest, and sports teams need to deliver.

"With high-speed access becoming the norm, it will only be a matter of time before there is a large convergence of divergent technologies," said Leonsis. "I can see where wireless, Web, video and chat are brought together for the closest experience of a sporting event without actually being there.

"The Web is only going to get faster and flow more freely. In the short term there will be strides made to make broadband ubiquitous and less expensive. In the long term these strides to make a faster Web more available will bring on the convergence and allow people to have an experience rather than experience a Web site."

What does this mean for sports franchises? As can be seen in the survey, there is a broad range of offerings from the 131 teams. Some teams have made a commitment to this medium; others have not. Those that have not continue to miss the greatest tool for a direct connection with their fan base, whenever and wherever in the world they may be.

Andy McGowan (ajmcscrapper@aol.com) is a lecturer in the Sport Management Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and president of Watkins Media Group, a strategic sports marketing communications firm.

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Hockey, In-Depth, Washington Capitals

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