SBJ/August 8 - 14, 2005/Other News

Online hits: The best, and how they do it

Look behind the scenes of today’s pro sports team Web sites and you’ll find commitments.

Top-rated sites (by league)
MLB: Boston Red Sox
NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers
NFL: Philadelphia Eagles
NHL: Atlanta Thrashers
MLS: Los Angeles Galaxy

 

League-wide rankings:

 

About this project
Commitments to far-reaching, well-thought-out publishing strategies.

Commitments to new, creative ways to capture more fans, and more fan attention.

Whether it’s the Seattle Mariners’ focus on cutting-edge technology to suit a tech-savvy city, the New York Giants’ thorough redesign of their site, or Major League Baseball’s content-packaging innovations, now found on all 30 MLB club sites, a commitment to a specific strategy is clear.

SportsBusiness Journal recently took part in staging a review of the team Web sites of the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLS and MLB. Graduate students from University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Isenberg School of Management provided extensive analysis of the 134 team sites in these leagues. We spoke to a number of team officials about their site innovations.

This is the third time we’ve teamed with UMass to review Web sites. While careful consideration went into the questionnaire used, we know that no formula can fully account for subjective tastes. The review process, however, is a snapshot of the buzz that today’s team sites can create. And in today’s see-this, get-that, must-have, right-now era, creating that buzz can be as significant as any statistical computation, if not more so.

These are the stories of how team sites across each league are trying to catch the eyes of their fans.

A league perspective

Every Major League Baseball team saw its overall score increase from our last Web site review two years ago, and this improvement has helped silence critics who called mlb.com an expensive folly.

Red Sox: Tabs give MLB fans choices.
MLB Advance Media had revenue of roughly $140 million last year and a profit of more than $40 million, including assets that cross all MLB team sites, such as ad sales, subscriptions, merchandise and a share of convenience fees for ticket purchases done online with all teams. That profit is a solid fraction of the low-nine-figure investment made by the league and teams since MLBAM launched five years ago and bodes well for the venture’s future.

What has changed over the past two years on mlb.com and the 30 team sites, which extensively share in design, content and technological features? Almost everything.

Among the features are embedded video highlights, which load in the first minute a visitor is on a site and launch automatically.

“The content changes daily and it’s conspicuously present, yet conveniently deactivated,” said Dinn Mann, editor-in-chief of mlb.com and senior vice president of MLBAM.

The lead news element on every MLB team site is really a half-dozen items, which rotate or can be accessed directly by numerical tabs. A recent check of the site for the Boston Red Sox, who scored first among the MLB clubs in our site review, showed offerings that included the prior night’s game story, a feature story and an overview of an interactive offering available on the site.

“If you look back 18 months, virtually nobody was doing [a tabbed display], but now if a site doesn’t have it, they’re missing an opportunity to share everything they have to offer,” Mann said.

Blogging is now available on MLBAM sites. There are arcade games to go along with traditional fantasy games, and mlb.com highlights are available to Web-enabled phones via wap.mlb.com. Another technical advancement: Through MLBAM’s improved Gameday application, fans can now chat with each other, including those of opposing teams.

The impact of MLBAM can be further seen via the change in scores for MLS team sites compared with our prior site review. MLBAM assumed control of the soccer league’s Internet operations last year. This year’s scores for the MLS team sites were generally higher in each of the areas measured during the review, particularly the design/technical area.

The top-scoring MLS site, that of the Los Angeles Galaxy, found success in several areas. Whereas the Red Sox topped the list of MLB sites overall but ranked in the teens in two of the four individual categories, the Galaxy scored in the top three among MLS sites for three of the four measures — the only site to have such standing.

Getting interactive

The Seattle Mariners were, by some accounts, the first pro team to have a Web site. They continue to be a leader in the area of fan interactivity online. Their score was third best among MLB teams, up from 13th two years ago.

Mariners: Web pioneers heavily interactive.
The list of interactive features on Seattle’s site is long. In the ticketing area, the franchise has gone well beyond online sales, which now account for nearly 60 percent of all sales, according to Gregg Greene, director of marketing for the Mariners. They’re one of a growing number of MLB clubs that offer print-at-home technology and ticket-exchange programs.

Currently, the team is working on a program to allow corporations to buy group tickets online under a private account that helps them coordinate with the demand for tickets and aims to ensure that groups of employees can sit together — sometimes a headache when large batches of tickets are disbursed at the beginning of the season. Local corporate leaders Boeing and Microsoft are assisting in the development, Greene said.

Many teams feature their television commercials on their Web sites. The Mariners let their fans vote on their favorites, which can get up to 5,000 votes the first day. When Edgar Martinez retired, the team offered printable masks of the star’s face and encouraged fans to wear them in the stadium. The team offered player masks at Halloween last year, too.

A natural outgrowth of the emphasis on interactivity is numerous in-stadium programs with sponsor Verizon Wireless, including trivia and other games on cell phones at the ballpark, voting via cell phones on the music to be played between innings, menu service via phone, and, in the future, ticket ordering via phone, Greene said.

“The population of Seattle is really plugged in and eager to embrace new technologies as they come out, so we have a lot of encouragement,” Greene said.

Brewers: Top brass are happy to chat.
Among MLB sites, Atlanta scored first in the area of fan interactivity. Milwaukee ranked second.

For the Brewers, the highlight of fan interaction comes from top executives’ participation on the site. New owner Mark Attanasio has borrowed from the Ted Leonsis/Mark Cuban playbook and has had two online chats since buying the team last fall. General manager Doug Melvin and scouting director Jack Zduriencik have made appearances as well, along with current and former players. In a lighter vein, the team typically spices up its online auctions by offering unusual items. Recently, it began offering extra spots for kids in the Brewers’ famed daily on-field sausage race.

Drafting first

If there’s a phenom in this year’s analysis, it’s the Cleveland Cavaliers, who jumped to the top of the NBA’s overall rankings on the strength of top finishes in content, commerce and fan interactivity — where the site placed 16th, 20th and third among NBA team sites two years ago.

Drafting LeBron James two years ago didn’t hurt, but the franchise still had to leverage all the potential material the star player brought to the table. The first thing team executives point to is the hiring of Joe Gabriele from the NBA’s own Internet team to be the beat writer on the Cavs team site.

Cavaliers: Beat writer gave them a boost.
MLB teams all have beat writers, but such writers are much rarer in the other leagues. It’s another Ohio team, the Cincinnati Bengals, that is generally recognized as being the first in the industry to bring on a beat writer from a publication, hiring Geoff Hobson from the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2000.

To hear the Cavaliers talk of the prolific Gabriele, whose salary the team pays entirely, beat writers are a must-have.

“He’s basically there with the team every step of the way, and he’s a tremendous writer to boot,” said Cavs President Len Komoroski. “We encourage him to be balanced in his offerings, but to basically write his conscience.”

The team would not discuss Gabriele’s salary, or how it compares to a typical newspaper beat writer’s.

Gabriele goes by “The Optimist” in his more humorous columns and news items, and this fan attitude is part of what has driven site traffic up 200 percent the past two years, according to Tad Carper, team vice president of communications. Gabriele has a hip, humorous voice that’s more typical of espn.com’s Page 2 than any official team site, but that meshes with the site’s often zooty content and “Cavaliers family” attitude.

At the same time James and Gabriele showed up, the Cavs incorporated streaming media into the site, content now common on team sites across leagues. Starting this season, though, the Cavs will produce a rarity: a 15- to 20-minute Web-only weekly video show. In the past, the team has shown Cavs’ coaches press conferences and player locker room interviews after every game, along with frequent practice video and executive press conferences.

“With a writer and with video, suddenly our content became very current and very multimedia,” Carper said.

Although July is a relatively slow NBA news month, the site had its third-highest traffic total ever last month. One reason is the site’s fan-interactivity features. Message boards have increased sign-ups recently by as much as 25 percent a month. And to keep people bouncing around the site, the Cavs are now developing interactive games and concepts that are simpler and quicker than traditional fantasy games.

In commerce, the team has worked with Aramark, which holds its local merchandising rights, to develop its own online Cavaliers Team Shop to complement the NBA Store. This included considerable work on streamlining the transaction process, Komoroski said.

Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is the chairman and founder of Quicken Loans, the huge online mortgage lender, so there’s a built-in belief in Web development at the franchise. But Carper said the commitment to development of the Cavs’ Web site started before Gilbert’s arrival.

“The whole organization has to commit to producing the kind of content you can’t get anywhere else,” Carper said.

Bullish on content

The Chicago Bulls finished ninth overall among NBA sites, but their fifth-place finish for content is a substantial improvement from their middle-tier, No. 12 ranking in our last site review.

The Bulls Web site isn’t heavy on bells and whistles. Its elements are offered almost magazine-style, with lengthy home page teases of top stories and just one prominent photo for the top half of the page.

The Bulls also have done a good job of archiving items with unique appeal. Video of young power forward Tyson Chandler’s rendition of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” from Wrigley Field a few years ago is there, along with highlights from summer scrimmages and even exhaustive chronicles of the tenures of deposed coaches Tim Floyd and Bill Cartwright, things a franchise might have preferred to ignore but fans will enjoy.

Overall, the site offers an intimacy between fans and the team.

“We have focused on providing high-quality stories with insight on players that you don’t get from the daily beat writers,” said Steve Schanwald, executive vice president of business operations for the Bulls. “For example, using off-the-court photos of our players and pursuing human-interest angles in our stories.”

Lengthy Q&A pieces with starters Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng are examples of the magazine approach. The stories, with photos from the players’ summer workouts, are bridging the offseason gap for fans.

Design giant

The New York Giants jumped to the top of the NFL (from sixth) in Web site design in the current analysis. Similarly, giants.com took top honors for design at the NFL marketing meetings in February.

In our site review, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked second in site design among NFL teams, followed by Philadelphia and Atlanta, who tied for third.

Philadelphia, which scored first in the content category, posted the highest total score among all NFL sites in our review. Atlanta, which earned the NFL Internet Network Award for best overall site in 2005, finished No. 4 with our reviewers.

Giants: Content-heavy but not crowded.
For New York, the improvement of the Giants site started two years ago, when team officials decided it was time to start designing for broadband and high-resolution monitors instead of low-tech users. With more than half of U.S. users on broadband, it seemed time to program for that audience.

The team’s developer, American Eagle of Park Ridge, Ill., was eager to do the redesign, said Kevin Corbett, Giants manager of new media. The result was a home page with an astonishing amount of content that doesn’t seem crowded or confusing.

The keys are a large player image on the right rail that personalizes the home page and serves as a visual anchor; “gradients,” or feathering techniques, that smooth the edges of certain elements and help them blend with adjacent elements; and a fair amount of open space, although it’s typically in shades of Giants blue and red.

“We felt, let’s try to get some of our players out there on the home page,” Corbett said of the right-side anchor. “Football is very much of a team sport, so let’s call out some of our better-known individual players and, boom, put them right there.”

There are usually five players in rotation, Corbett said. Recently, for levity, there was a candid shot below the marquee shot of another Giants player clumsily lugging his bedding on a sidewalk at training camp.

The shift to a more complex design allowed for elements like scrolling tickers and tabbed sections offering numerous stories in the same space. In the works for this season is a visual home-page signal that will alert visitors of player appearances on television and radio several hours ahead of time.

Active — despite a lockout

The Atlanta Thrashers didn’t lay off anyone from their communications department during the NHL’s 310-day lockout. They put their staffers to work in the community.

Thrashers: A community-minded approach.
One result was a host of content and interactive features on atlantathrashers.com that played to fans’ love of the game, especially that of playing the game. Another result was that Atlanta’s team Web site had a higher fan interactivity score than every NHL team and all but three MLB teams, whose season was just underway as the site reviews were being conducted.

The Hockey Development Resource Center on the Thrashers site features links to dozens of stories on coach and player development and has generated thank-you e-mails from hockey coaches around the country. The Thrashers’ Local Hockey Main Page highlights hockey events in the community, including clinics sponsored by team, leaning heavily on play-by-play announcer Darren Eliot, a former NHL goalie himself.

“We did a lot of things in the community … and we posted all of it,” said Lou DePaoli, CMO of the Thrashers and NBA Atlanta Hawks. “We told our people, ‘You’re basically full-time at every single adult hockey, youth hockey and corporate hockey event in the city: ice hockey, street hockey, floor hockey — everything.’”

Team executives did numerous online chats during the lockout, though they adhered to NHL rules about commenting on the labor situation. Current players had no role in the site, of course, but former players and former NHLers living in Atlanta were the subjects of long features. Extra emphasis was placed on the Thrashers’ farm teams. The site also introduced blogs for fans.

“We didn’t want fans to lose contact with the Thrashers, so we made [the site] a priority,” DePaoli said.

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