SBJ/June 12 - 18, 2006/Sports Sites Reload New Content New Strategies
MySpace race: Fan participation drives change on Web
Published June 12, 2006
The next writer hired by FoxSports.com won’t be a decorated newspaper veteran or former athlete turned TV analyst. Rather, the writer will be one of 12 finalists from the general public, each for now operating under an Internet handle such as “Dr. Midnight” or “Shooter B.”
For more than a year, prominent online media outlets such as ESPN.com and SI.com have produced massive amounts of blogs written by their top columnists. The move was an immediate success for all parties. Fans received more content from their favorite writers, the site owners gained additional inventory for ad sales and key instruments to deepen their online brands, and the writers found a less constrictive outlet for their writing.
The “Next Great Sportswriter” contest pushes the ongoing blog craze in a markedly different direction: the professionalization of user-generated content. The winner of the event, just like the first “NGS” champion, Ty Hildenbrandt, will become a contributing writer to FoxSports.com.
That effort — complete with judging from editors from the site and content partner Dime Magazine — is one of many already active or in development by the major sports sites to make user-generated content a fundamental and prominent part of their editorial product.
“The user-generated content is going to be huge for us,” said Brian Grey, FoxSports.com senior vice president and general manager. “We’ve seen elsewhere how people are after true online community and have heard all the talk about social networking. We’re actually looking to make that a critical component of our entire user experience.”
Each of the major sports news destinations on the Internet is undergoing some type of significant redefinition and embracing other fast-growing forms of content, such as broadband video, as it redefines itself for a larger but more demanding audience. But it is the user-generated content that represents that most striking divide from the previous, more journalistically traditional representation of sports on the Web.
SportingNews.com, which last year shifted away from maintaining a standard, general sports news operation online, now operates the entire site around the notion of fan community. Feedback is sought for every piece of editorial content, and the site’s hallmark is a fan-rating system in which users grade the blogs and postings of others, with top scorers receiving prizes and access to premium-level content.
ESPN.com’s “Voice of the Fan” allows users to broadcast their own opinions on the site through customized facial animation and recorded audio and similarly solicits user-created video segments.
FoxSports.com has made fan blogging a fundamental part of its operation well beyond the sportswriting contest, mirroring much of its activity after that of its fellow News Corp. holding, MySpace, the wildly popular online teen hangout.
“Every sports brand out there is looking for their version of MySpace,” said Chris Russo, president of CR Media Ventures and a frequent consultant on digital media initiatives. “What ultimately these sites want to do is orient their fans so their sites are the center of an entire Internet user experience. But nobody has taken a leadership position in the market yet. Everything we’re seeing so far is strictly experimentation, so that’s why it’s so exciting and you’re seeing so much entry into this space.”
Joining the executive focus and user eyeballs is the fast-growing interest of Corporate America. Among the more prominent examples: McDonald’s is sponsoring the “NGS” contest, Wendy’s assumes a similar role for “Voice of the Fan” and GMC has purchased a one-year exclusive sponsorship to advertise around the fan blogs on SportingNews.com.
“Blogging has become a very popular part of the sports landscape, so this is natural for us as means to get that male demo we want,” said Lisa Grutta, GMC interactive advertising manager. “You certainly have concerns about controls and content quality when getting involved in something like this, but we trust The Sporting News. We’ve been in the print magazine for quite a while, so there was already a relationship we build upon.”
The empowering of the fan online stems greatly from two other growing elements of the sports universe: fantasy sports and sports talk radio. Fantasy games represent one of the runaway success stories in sports this decade, with the U.S. population of players now exceeding 15 million and the NFL Players Association recently forming a big-money trade association to serve the space. Sports talk radio, similarly, is a great survivor in a declining landscape for ratings and circulation among most other forms of sports media.
“People love to talk and debate sports. That’s never really going away,” Russo said. “So what we’re seeing online in a lot of ways is an extension of what’s happened in these other areas.”
The rise in user-generated content creates an interesting irony for the major sites. By fostering the open expression of fan opinion, they also fuel the notion that the fans know more than the so-called experts they pay to generate content. The site executives say that without the tension and energy created by the fan debate, though, their operations risk being left behind by the competition.
“The personal investment our fans have in us, and the opportunity to interact with other knowledgeable fans, is crucial to our ability to create that quality level of engagement,” said Jason Kint, SportingNews.com vice president and general manager. “We’re only going to be amping all of this up going forward.”
TRAFFIC: 5.44 million unique visitors in April 2006, with an average monthly time spent of 16 minutes, 46 seconds per user, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
KEY CLICKS: With its days as an überdominant Internet service provider behind it, AOL now exists foremost as an open Web portal, and its sports channel is a fairly traditional news-and-scores site, mostly aggregating content from other sources. Among its original offerings, the audio program “Sports Bloggers Live” exists below the sports chat mainstream but pulls in big-name guests: Recent interviews include Bill Walton and Don Mattingly. Fantasy is a huge play for AOL, with its football offerings scoring well among hard-core fans.
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FUTURE BOOKMARKS: AOL recently replaced Ross Schaufelberger with Neal Scarbrough to run the sports channel, with a spokesperson saying the news and sports departments are evolving and being reconfigured. Scarbrough, most recently of ESPN, is a longtime newsman who brings a more concerted journalistic eye to AOL Sports. “There are some great assets here, but they have not been totally propagated to make everything happen,” he said. “We want to be an interactive leader.” A recently announced deal with the WNBA makes league content available through several AOL channels.
WHAT’S WORKED:With significant strength existing in the AOL brand name and a long history of hosting big audiences, AOL Sports generates significant traffic for special events, such as its annual review of Super Bowl commercials. The site often leverages such big events well by surrounding the anchor content with additional video features and user polls. AOL also has effectively coalesced its online community into charitable initiatives, such as last fall’s online broadcast of a Tulane-Mississippi State football game that raised money for Hurricane Katrina victims.
FAILURE TO LOAD: A flat, outdated site design, one that Scarbrough intends to address quickly, has contributed to relatively low scores in average user time spent and other key measures of user engagement.
PERSON TO WATCH: Scarbrough. Credited with playing a major role in turning ESPN.com into the industry giant it is, he inherits a big job in more clearly defining AOL’s sports identity. The site also claims little in the way of marquee original content to bring in new users. “We definitely want more watercooler moments around here,” Scarbrough said.
TRAFFIC: 14.5 million unique visitors in April 2006, with an average monthly time spent of 42 minutes, 3 seconds per user, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
KEY CLICKS: The widely acknowledged king of the sports Internet landscape offers a little bit of everything: news, real-time scores, popular columnists such as Bill Simmons and Peter Gammons, live and archived video, fantasy games, and fan message boards. Depth is prevalent throughout the site, to the point where new initiatives often get lost in the shuffle or fail to be publicized significantly by ESPN, such as its relationship with Scouts Inc. for recruiting and scouting news.
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FUTURE BOOKMARKS: Several new content initiatives are in development, including “Monday Night Surround,” an interactive collection of games, editorial content, highlight video and fan polls connected to ESPN’s new coverage of “Monday Night Football.”
WHAT’S WORKED: The self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports has effectively leveraged its mammoth brand power into an online operation that continually sets the market for content and presentation. The company also has lapped its competition in being able to sell combined ad buys across multiple ESPN platforms. By having many of its popular columnists become regular bloggers, paid subscriptions to the Insider service have doubled over the last two years, said John Kosner, senior vice president and general manager of ESPN New Media.
FAILURE TO LOAD: The site is so packed with content and full-motion ads that it sometimes does literally fail to load, even with solid broadband connections. More specifically, video has been a decidedly hit-and-miss affair, with the site’s varied ESPN 360, ESPN Motion and pay-per-view video ventures requiring different software. That problem is scheduled to be addressed later this month with the release of a uniform multimedia player that will handle all video on the site. ESPN.com also is a key part of some fan criticism centered on the company’s perceived hypercoverage of certain events, such as Barry Bonds’ home run chase.
PERSON TO WATCH: Simmons. As one of the site’s top draws on ESPN.com, every word he writes is carefully scrutinized and debated. Industry and fan chatter, as well as a story earlier this year in Sports Illustrated, have suggested Simmons might be at the beginning of the end of his heralded run writing online columns. “I really feel like I have a year or a good 18 to 20 months left in me. And I really have to start thinking about what’s next,” Simmons told the magazine. Simmons is under contract, though terms of his deal were not available, and Kosner disputes the notion of Simmons’ decline. He also trumpets the columnist’s status as an ESPN.com linchpin. “It’s still one of the great, reliable places you can go on the Internet for sports and get a laugh,” he said.
TRAFFIC: 669,000 unique visitors in April 2006, with an average monthly time spent of 20 minutes, 57 seconds per user, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings.
KEY CLICKS: The online home of the venerable weekly sports magazine has waved the white flag on the mass traffic game. Instead, sportingnews.com is seeking the hard-core sports fan and is playing up social networking elements to maximum levels. The site was redesigned last summer to make it look more like an online sports bar rather than a traditional print operation. User feedback is eagerly sought within each page, and fan blogs are openly promoted and rated, with top participants earning prizes such as free passes to paid fantasy leagues. Key columnists and bloggers include Ken Rosenthal (also part of the foxsports.com stable of writers) and Dave Kindred.
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FUTURE BOOKMARKS: Company officials are working to deepen an already existing partnership between the site and Sporting News Radio, seeking to move more seamlessly lively discussions back and forth between the radio and Internet.
WHAT’S WORKED:Having the presence of mind to know it won’t beat ESPN at its own game, The Sporting News boldly but wisely ventured in a radically different direction on the Web. Ad sales have increased 50 percent year over year despite the site’s traffic counts remaining a mere fraction of its larger competitors, in large part due to the active cultivation of an engaged, high-income base of sports fans. The heavy community aspect of the site dovetails effectively into the company’s significant play in fantasy sports.
FAILURE TO LOAD: With the site’s initial redefinition now complete and its one-time Web partnership with Fox Sports a distant memory, company executives know the advertising growth will not be sustained without some type of commensurate growth in traffic, particularly as hit counts over the past year have not soared like the competition’s. Whether that can be done in the long term with the current content model is uncertain. “We’d like to get our content out to more of the Internet world,” said Jason Kint, sportingnews.com vice president and general manager. “We’ve gone tight on a vertical model, and that’s working, but also we’d like to grow, and we have to be careful not to grow at the expense of the quality engagement we’ve forged with our fans.”
PERSON TO WATCH: Kint. As the key executive overseeing the drastic overhaul of the site and a veteran of the online content wars, Kint has much of the company’s future brand power in his hands. That’s especially the case given that the print title remains a distant third behind Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine among general-interest sports magazines in both circulation and ad revenue, and re-engineering in other parts of the company has failed to catch fire.
TRAFFIC: 1.42 million unique visitors in April 2006, with an average monthly time spent of 48 minutes, 6 seconds per user, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings.
KEY CLICKS: The Tennessee-based upstart remains best known for its in-depth coverage of college football and basketball recruiting. Working in part as an aggregator of dozens of smaller operations covering individual schools, team sites covering major programs such as Texas, USC, Florida and Alabama are particularly popular. Traffic has surged by more than 80 percent in the last year thanks largely to recent content distribution deals with AOL and Yahoo!
PROMINENT SPONSORS: Nike, Under Armour
FUTURE BOOKMARKS: The company is making a push into retail, trying to stake a claim in the fractured market for college apparel and other team-logoed merchandise. The effort, via RivalsFanShop.com, will target hot markets for top national programs and also carry hard-to-find gear for smaller Division I and Division II schools. “Right now, there’s not that one major dominant player in merchandise for the college market, like you have in the major leagues. We want to be that entity,” said chief executive Shannon Terry. Rivals.com also is broadening beyond its traditional base in football and basketball and bulking up its coverage of college baseball, reflecting recent growth in that sport in attendance and TV exposure.
WHAT’S WORKED: While its much larger competition on the Web focused primarily on the established pro sports during the run-up of the Internet, Rivals.com staked an early and crucial claim by drilling deeply into the nuances and inside politics of college recruiting. That core competency remains the underpinning of every company venture.
FAILURE TO LOAD: Very little has derailed Rivals.com to date or even presented a significant hiccup, but two significant challenges loom. As Rivals.com continues to grow and broaden its base to new fans, it risks losing the insider, almost cultish, element that made the site what it is. Its key mission has been putting out information deeper and smarter than anything else available, a mission that must now mesh with a more mainstream-oriented business plan. Secondly, companies such as News Corp., which last year bought Rivals.com’s key competitor, Scout Media, have fully awakened to the growing market for this type of data. Other major players similarly are expected to increase their recruiting coverage.
PERSON TO WATCH:Deirdre GaNun, Rivals.com senior vice president of advertising. A former sales star at ESPN.com, GaNun is now Rivals.com’s lead ad executive. Chief executive Terry stands as the public face of the company, but GaNun is charged with capturing a piece of the runaway market for online advertising and pushing the company beyond its traditional reliance on subscription revenue.
TRAFFIC: 10.47 million unique visitors in April 2006, with an average monthly time spent of 22 minutes, 25 seconds per user, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
KEY CLICKS: News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch was late to the Internet party, but he has arrived in a big way over the last 18 months. The period has seen a revamping of the Fox site that takes it far beyond network brochureware and into a mainstream sports news site as well as the acquisition of other Internet assets, such as Scout Media and MySpace.com. Notable columnists include baseball writer Ken Rosenthal and Darrell Waltrip from Fox’s NASCAR TV coverage.
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FUTURE BOOKMARKS: The site is working simultaneously on two tracks: the mainstream, real-time news strategy employed by ESPN.com, CBS SportsLine.com and others, and the social-networking element seen in places such as sportingnews.com. The Fox site, with the mega teen hangout MySpace as its corporate sister, arguably takes the user-generated content element further than anyone, extending to an annual sportswriting contest, “The Next Great Sportswriter,” in which the winning fan blogger becomes a contributing writer to the site. Plans call for adding more such user-based components. A big wireless push to move much of the site’s content to mobile devices is also under way.
WHAT’S WORKED: After trying several different content models in recent years, as well as a partnership with The Sporting News, foxsports.com seems to have struck on a more stable structure that combines much of what’s most in demand on the Internet with highlight video from the battery of Fox Sports Net regional outlets.
FAILURE TO LOAD: Site executives are significantly retooling this year’s fantasy football offerings in an effort to avoid embarrassing technical malfunctions that marred the start of the 2005 season. Site traffic, while among the strongest of all sports destinations in raw terms, is still something of a concern: Industry estimates point to as much as 90 percent of the site’s audience coming from Fox Sports’ partnership with major Internet portal MSN.com.
PERSON TO WATCH: Brian Grey, foxsports.com senior vice president and general manager. Not quite a year into his post with Fox, Grey is another industry veteran brought in to forge a new online identity, similar to the task at hand for Neal Scarbrough at AOL Sports. One of the leaders behind Yahoo!’s initial ascension in the sports world, Grey is the lead foot soldier within sports for turning Murdoch’s grand interactive plans into reality.
TRAFFIC: 6.49 million unique visitors in April 2006, with an average monthly time spent of 17 minutes, 3 seconds per user, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
KEY CLICKS: The online component of Sports Illustrated, the site mixes news, scores and statistics with original features and columns from top magazine talent such as Peter King, Paul Zimmerman, Rick Reilly and Tom Verducci, along with photo galleries pulled from a 52-year archive. King’s “Monday Morning Quarterback” column is the site’s signature feature, drawing visitor counts each week well into six figures. SI.com also serves as the year-round home for the ever-popular swimsuit photos.
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FUTURE BOOKMARKS: This summer will see a significant enhancement of the site’s fantasy offerings, enlarging “Fantasy Plus” to make it both a regular staple of the magazine and a daily, continually updated component on the Web. Most notably, King will contribute “10 Things I Think I Think,” a fantasy-oriented miniversion of “MMQB” that carries over the established name used for one section of the traditional “MMQB” column. The writing, to be posted each Friday during the NFL season, is something that King volunteered to do. Company executives also are pushing to increase the site’s traffic counts beyond 12 million per month over the next year in an attempt to bring SI.com into closer competition with ESPN.com
WHAT’S WORKED: Top talent from the magazine has been used to draw fans to the site. Most of SI.com’s competition has since employed a similar strategy, hiring notable columnists of their own from across the spectrum of sports journalism. “Scorecard Daily” and “Riffs of Reilly” are newer features that quickly have found loyal audiences.
FAILURE TO LOAD: SI.com struggles with the perception the site is simply a repurposing of content already appearing in the magazine, a notion called “shovelware” in industry lingo. In actuality, nearly all of the site’s content is created exclusively for the Internet, with magazine features occupying just one of 20 links across the top of the main page. “The SI brand is not weekly. It’s a living, breathing, 24/7 operation, and that’s something we have not fully communicated to the public,” said Paul Fichtenbaum, SI.com managing editor.
PERSON TO WATCH: King. The longtime NFL writer created arguably the first must-read Internet sports column. He continues to grow in popularity, but he also is somewhat of a polarizing presence, with some hard-core NFL fans believing “MMQB” has slipped precipitously in quality. That debate only promises to heighten with King joining NBC’s Sunday night football coverage this fall.
TRAFFIC: 11.35 million unique visitors in April 2006, with an average monthly time spent of 45 minutes, 30 seconds per user, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
KEY CLICKS: The sports portal of the Internet powerhouse, Yahoo! Sports is best known for its fantasy sports offerings. Early this year, however, the company hired Dave Morgan, former Los Angeles Times deputy sports editor, to be its executive editor for sports in an effort to bulk up its original content offerings and shift away from a sole reliance on aggregating content from wire services and other sources. SportStream, Yahoo!’s online sports analysis show, is the site’s best-known video content offering.
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FUTURE BOOKMARKS: David Katz, head of Yahoo! Sports, is a huge believer in broadband video, even as other media companies race more urgently for the third screen of mobile content. The 12-month plans for the site include additional SportStream shows and more extensive promotion of the company’s recently struck partnership with OLN. The content deal allows Yahoo! to stream live video of OLN programs, including the NHL, Arena Football League and Tour de France.
WHAT’S WORKED:By establishing an early foothold in fantasy sports, Yahoo! paced itself far ahead of its mostly late-arriving competition. That gives the site an invaluable traffic anchor to bring viewers to the new editorial content. Yahoo! Sports also enjoys the significant benefit of audiences pulled from other popular Yahoo! areas, such as search, news and chat.
FAILURE TO LOAD: Like other sites in transition, Yahoo! is battling consumer perception and faces a challenge redefining itself as more than a simple content aggregator. “We’re making a huge play in sports this year, and it’s a priority for the entire company, but it sort of feels like we can’t get there fast enough,” Katz said.
PERSON TO WATCH: Katz. Already an executive on the rise, Katz’s duties were recently expanded to include executive oversight of Yahoo! Studios, which will develop event-based, original and user-generated content. Top executives above Katz continue to describe original content for Yahoo! as “the salt and pepper on the meal, not the meal itself.” Katz, however, is eager to use original material, both video and editorial text, as a key driver to expand the Yahoo! brand. No open executive conflict currently exists, but the subtle difference in attitude bears watching.
TRAFFIC: 9.23 million unique visitors in April 2006, with an average monthly time spent of 33 minutes, 56 seconds per user, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
KEY CLICKS: One of the original mass-market sports news sites, CBS SportsLine.com spent several years as a stand-alone, publicly traded company but now is part of CBS Digital Media. A deep base in fantasy sports is buttressed by popular columnists such as Ray Ratto and newly hired Mike Freeman, who is expected to begin writing for the site in July. This spring’s free online coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament (March Madness On Demand) set a new standard for Internet distribution of a live sporting event, drawing more than 5 million users. SportsLine also produces NFL.com and PGATour.com.
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FUTURE BOOKMARKS: Company executives are eyeing potential partnerships or syndications that will put the site’s content in front of more eyeballs. “Distribution is certainly a weakness,” said Steve Snyder, CBS SportsLine.com general manager. “We’re sort of like a restaurant people really like, but it’s sort of out of the way. It would be nice to get a big highway.”
WHAT’S WORKED: All promises related to “MMOD” this year were honored, and then some, creating a big-scale success that promises to alter the state of sports broadcasting. Advertisers flocked to the product, users arrived in droves, the servers held up without any major hiccups and TV ratings were not significantly cannibalized. Recent partnerships such as Yahoo!’s deal with OLN that will bring more live major sports to the Internet, as well as CBS’s own online coverage of Amen Corner from the Masters, owe in some fashion to the industry landscape made significantly safer by “MMOD.”
FAILURE TO LOAD: Attempts to be clever sometimes come off as ham-fisted and awkward. The site’s “Spin on Sports,” an offering along the lines of ESPN.com’s Page 2, has a pervasive late-to-the-party feel. The page last year briefly referred to fantasy sports columnist Eric Mack as “Emack” — complete with dopey grin and backward baseball cap — in a particularly painful attempt at hipness.
PERSON TO WATCH: Larry Kramer, president, CBS Digital Media. With the network operating from a position of ratings and financial success, CBS is actively pushing online content initiatives across the entire company. Its planned “Innertube” channel of broadband content is more of an entertainment-side play, but the activity indicates a heavy, senior-level executive interest in the Internet, one that undoubtedly continues to include sports and CBS’s marquee programming. More specifically, Kramer will be a key figure in CBS SportsLine.com’s evolving relationship with the NFL.