‘Atlanta Journal-Constitution’ Scraps Paid Sports Section

By: Jay DeFoore

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has decided to pull the plug on its subscription sports Web site ajcsportsPlus. Beginning Aug. 16, the site will no longer be accessible, and subscribers will receive a pro-rated refund check for the unused portion of their subscription.

An announcement posted on the ajcsportsPlus Web site did not give an explanation for the decision, but it said the paper would “unveil significant enhancements” to the regular sports section of its Web site on Aug. 16. AJC.com editorial director Hyde Post did not immediately return calls seeking comment. (UPDATE: Post explained the decision in a follow-up interview with E&P Aug. 16.)

The newspaper charged $29.95 per year to access the ajcsportsPlus site, or $15 for print subscribers. The site featured blogs, columns, stats, and multimedia content devoted to area sports teams, including the Braves, Falcons, and Georgia Tech and University of Georgia college teams.

Newspaper Web sites have had largely mixed results when it comes to monetizing their sports content. In 2002, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune launched Purple Plus, a $29.95 subscription product aimed at Vikings fans. But the paper killed the section a year later after failing to get more than 600 paid subscribers.

The originator of the subscription sports service, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Packer Insider, has had better success since it launched in 2001. Mike Davis, editor of the Journal-Sentinel’s interactive unit, said subscriptions for the Journal-Sentinel’s Packer Insider have continued to grow each year, despite “very little marketing.” Davis attributes the product’s success to a rabid fan base, a team with a rich history, and content that involves the fans in several novel ways.

“You have to have a team people are nuts about, and then you have to create a product that’s beyond what they can get anywhere else,” Davis said. “The key is to really create a lot of content. You can’t have just a couple of columns and let that be it. You have to have a lot of content, and then you have to bring the fans in.”

Davis said the Packer Insider hosts chats with columnists and beat reporters in which fans pose the questions. The site also has a popular Monday morning feature that asks fans to send in their headline suggestions for the previous day’s game.

So far the Packers have not had a losing season since the launch of Packer Insider. But anger could be a motivating factor, since Davis has noticed that traffic increases after losses.

One paid site that has weathered a miserable season from the local sports franchise is Belo’s Cowboys Plus, a premium service dedicated to fans of the Dallas Cowboys, which went 6-10 in 2004 and missed the playoffs. The joint effort of The Dallas Morning News, WFAA-TV, and Texas Cable News just reached its second anniversary this month. John Banks, senior sports editor for DallasNews.com, declined to discuss how many subscribers CowboysPlus has attracted, but he did say the company is forging ahead for the 2005 season.

“We have no plans to change what we’ve been doing,” Banks told E&P. “It’s a tough go, but we knew that going in. We’re happy with where we’re at, but we’d like to have more subscribers, obviously.”

Cowboys Plus and Packer Insider both benefit from a rabid fan base rallied around a single subject. The ajcsportsPlus site, in comparison, had a much more broad focus.

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