SBJ/August 1-7, 2011/In Depth

Will sports play along with new domains?

Plenty of teams and leagues remain vexed by domain names and cyber squatting, but changes coming in 2012 could bring greater clarity to the Web.

Long after the Internet came to be, domain squabbles remain an issue. In Dallas alone, all four big league franchises have no control over basic derivations of their identities. Cowboys.com won’t take you to the NFL team’s site, mavericks.com doesn’t assist fans to the NBA champs’ page, stars.com isn’t an NHL franchise domain, and rangers.com is home to a site promoting media architecture rather than the American League champions.

Texas is hardly a lone star when it comes to domain names. NFLDraft.com, theplayers.com and plenty more examples abound. Type sec.com into your browser in search of the powerful college football conference and you’ll find a page dedicated to a New York financial trader instead.

Such long-standing conflicts still cause ample heartburn, though leagues and teams say Google, Bing and other search engines have mitigated those concerns in recent years. The more intriguing question centers on what comes after the dot in the dot-coms.

In the tricky world of domain names, fans putting mavericks.com or stars.com into their browser won’t be calling up the home of the NBA champs or the NHL club.
In January, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a California-based nonprofit that coordinates online identifiers, will begin accepting applications for what are known in industry jargon as generic top-level domains.

At present, there are 22 approved top-level domains, the familiar suffixes such as dot-com, dot-org and dot-net. The new system, long-discussed and oft-delayed, will give leagues, teams and everyone else with the will and the wallet a chance to pick what follows the first part of a Web address.

As an example, the Philadelphia Phillies could gain control of a dot-phillies top-level domain, steering fans, sponsors and everyone else to a name that makes it clear what the brand is and who controls it.

And there is much more to the idea than just the name. Any organization, sports or otherwise, in charge of its top-level domain could then sell or give sponsors, fans, employees and others the right to use the suffix, entirely at their discretion.

Josh Bourne, managing partner at domain-name strategy consultant FairWinds Partners, whose clients include Nike, said teams and leagues will first view the additional suffixes from a defensive position. That is, they will want to determine how to prevent others from squatting or subverting their identities.

Unlike most companies, though, there is a potential payoff in sports, where customers could be willing to pay for a piece of a top-level domain name. For example, the Chicago Blackhawks could offer fans the chance to have an email address attached to what the franchise controls, such as blackhawks.nhl. By selling that off to each fan for $50 or $100 per year, some teams could quickly offset the application fee.

“My gut is they haven’t taken seriously enough the revenue side because they’re mainly looking at this from an intellectual property point of view rather than a business point of view,” Bourne said. “There’s a big revenue opportunity here.”

At the same time, there’s great expense. Applying for a top-level domain name costs $185,000, and requires wading through a 300-page set of rules and winning approval as part of an assessment expected to take as long as a full year. Applications can be submitted through April 2012. If successful, managing the top-level domain name could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more each year, according to ICANN.

ICANN points to the cost and lengthy application period as deterrents to squatting. Still, uncertainty looms.

How, after all, might the dot-football, dot-baseball or dot-sports suffix be awarded, if it ever is? And how many top-level domain names are necessary? Would nike.nike be enough, or would the sneaker giant want nike.swoosh and nike.justdoit, as well?

With top-level domain name applications to be considered for three months next year and then awarded a year later, there is intense pressure on all companies, sports or otherwise, to get it right. That’s because it may be five to 10 years before more are awarded beyond this first round, Bourne said.

So will sports properties pony up for the additional domain names?

Bob Bowman, president and CEO of MLB Advanced Media, said the trend is clearly away from domain names and their importance because of search engines, apps and so on. “In terms of how people are going to access content, I think they’re less and less important,” he said. “In terms of where activity is going to be because of [new suffixes], they’re going to be more and more important.”

MLBAM controls 3,500 domain names related to the sport and its teams. Of the so-called optimal domain names — yankees.com, cubs.com, etc. — MLBAM has rights to 24 of them. Giants.com is controlled by the NFL team of the same name, with the rest held by other entities beyond baseball (Athletics, Rangers, Rays, Rockies and Twins).

And don’t expect a big move at the Southeastern Conference, where secsports.com and secdigitalnetwork.com are home to football rather than financial traders.

“There’s always going to be someone else who has a business or an entity that’s got similar letters to you,” said Charlie Hussey, the SEC’s assistant commissioner for marketing and licensing. “It’s a balance of trying to use a more complete term. It’s certainly easier now to find what you’re looking for. … We’re comfortable with what we’ve got.”

Plenty of teams and leagues are willing to let some names go, forsaking a big payday to a squatter or someone who has a legitimate claim to the name and is unlikely to let it go. In other cases, a fan could be persuaded to give up a domain name by being granted access through an interview for a blog site or with premium seats to a game or championship.

Other situations still require legal action. “If they’re using it inappropriately, you do have to go after it still,” said Mark Passler, an intellectual property attorney at Akerman Senterfitt whose clients have included the Miami Dolphins, Florida Panthers and the PGA Tour. “You have to go after it if somebody’s using something inappropriately and it looks like somehow you’re endorsing them.”

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

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