Sports League Sites Battle Media

By: Steve Outing

For some time, the Web sites of sports leagues, teams, and events have been evolving — away from being mere promotional tools, to becoming media entities themselves.

Today’s sports fan has a choice between independent media (ESPN.com or the online sports section of The Washington Post, for instance) and media-like Web sites of sports organizations (say, NFL.com, or DenverBroncos.com, or NASCAR.com). The lines are blending such that for some fans, there’s not a lot of difference between the two types of sports sites.

And that’s a significant change in the competitive environment for sports news.

What’s a fan to do?

Let’s say you’re a pro football fan, and after the game you go online looking for coverage. Nowadays, you can get as much information from some league Web sites as from media sports sites. If you go to NFL.com, the official site of the National Football League, for example, you’ll find considerable coverage of the games in the league and gee-whiz features — recaps, a game stats page, game summary sheet, photo slide show, streaming audio of games, video clips, and online chats with players and coaches.

Much of the editorial coverage of football on NFL.com comes from wire services (just as does much of the content you’ll find on media sports sites). And NFL.com will direct you to the official sites of the teams in the NFL, for more in-depth coverage of your favorite teams — for “hometown” depth of coverage.

At NHL.com, the Web site of the National Hockey League, one of the flashiest features is “My Video Highlights,” with which broadband Internet users can collect highlight reels from games they missed. This is powerful stuff.

Some Web sites of individual teams are taking seriously the notion that they are “media” operations. The official site of the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, for instance, has a staff journalist (a former newspaper beat writer) to report and write much of its coverage of the team. He does not produce just glowing prose, but gets negative occasionally. (From an article about last Sunday’s Bengals game on Bengals.com: “So many things went wrong for the Bengals Sunday that it appeared the fans who went to the Pontiac Silverdome for a football game saw a three-ring circus break out.”)

This should ring alarm bells for media sports sites. It means there’s a new breed of competitor online, with the money and technical sophistication to create a compelling experience for the Internet sports fan. It may operate under a different set of rules than the typical media sports site, which is run by journalists not marketers, but that just makes it that much more challenging a competitor for the allegiance of fans. The threat may not be overly serious yet, but it’s getting to be.

The big picture

Online sports media consultantSteve Klein, former sports editor of USAToday.com, is concerned by this trend of sports entities becoming publishers. For now, but perhaps not much longer, he says, media-operated sports sites still have an edge over league and team sites. The advantages: objective coverage, and the insights of celebrity columnists and personalities who cover the teams.

But the problem with many sports fans, he says, is that they sometimes get “ticked off” when sports reporters and media pundits trash their beloved teams or star athletes. With an alternative available that gives them what they want, minus the negative spin, some fans may flit over to the feature-laden league and team sites.

It wasn’t that long ago that the sports media was the first to break news — about a player acquisition, trade, medical news on a key player, etc. That’s still mostly the case, because sports organizations can’t post news of a deal until it’s done, so media sports reporters can still get the early scoop sometimes. But the media-like league and team sites are now positioned to be first if they choose. If an official team site wants to set a policy of being first to break the news — either by posting it to its Web site or sending it out in its e-mail newsletter — then the long-held advantage of media sports organizations is significantly degraded. Teams won’t withhold news from independent sports media — it’s in their best interest to get the additional publicity — but fans who want news of their teams fastest may learn to turn to the league and team sites.

Show me the money

While sports teams and leagues are primarily concerned with selling tickets, merchandise, and broadcast rights, most of them have in the last few years figured out that there may be money in being a “publisher,” too. And all it takes these days is a Web site and some promotion capability (to which the sports entities have ready access). Teams and leagues won’t and can’t reasonably compete by creating their own TV stations or newspapers, but a Web site is another matter.

Increasingly, we’re seeing league and team sites with advertisers and sponsors on their pages. Typically, these are the result of multiple-point sponsorship deals — where a company like Budweiser might buy a package of posters in the stadium, space on the electronic scoreboard, ads in the programs, and banners on the Web site. Nevertheless, the Web sites of sports organizations represent a potential new revenue stream for them — and with the high traffic of sports sites (especially pro and top college sports), this can represent significant money, in theory. (But only when a money-making model for Web publishing is finally devised.)

As sports sites get more media-like, they’re beginning to attract online-exclusive deals. For instance, just this week an Internet ad deal was announced by the Dallas Stars hockey team with AT&T. The telecom giant was given direct access to the Stars site‘s users through a “sniffing” scheme; when a user is detected to be connecting to the site via a dial-up connection, the site serves up an AT&T offer for broadband services. This sort of Web ad deal is far more lucrative than traditional banner ads (and more effective for the advertiser).

It’s about control

What underlies this whole trend is the desire of sports teams and leagues to control their own message — and not rely, as they’ve had to in the past, on feeding news to the media and hoping they get the coverage they want. With their own, well-used Web sites, sports organizations gain control.

The whole concept of sports organizations morphing into online media entities “undermines traditional media,” Klein says. If the club sports sites succeed in siphoning off sports media site users, then fans never get the negative news about their teams or the sport in general. “I don’t think that’s healthy,” Klein adds. “To me, it’s dangerous when (any entity gets to) control its own message.”

Klein, who also teaches online journalism at George Mason University, says he worries that young sports fans, in particular, don’t seem to differentiate between the content they get at club sites and that from media sites. People who aren’t experienced media consumers may not recognize that they’re getting just a positive spin on a sport. They’re blinded by the sites’ flashy features and useful stats.

Access issues easing

A couple of years ago, sports teams, leagues, and event organizers were in a brouhaha over giving press credentials to online journalists. Because they were running Web sites of their own, sports organizations often denied credentials to reporters from online entities — sparking cries of 1st Amendment violations against the sports organizations. That seems to have quieted down, in part because of the demise of many “pure-play” Internet sports sites. Now the industry has been whittled down to a few strong online sports media players — so it’s easy for teams and leagues to figure out which Web sports entities are legitimate, and there’s not as much demand in the stadium press box where there are only so many seats.

The contentious issues in the years ahead will be about what media Web sites can publish online — especially when it comes to broadband content, such as game highlights video. Staci Kramer, a columnist for the Online Journalism Review and a free-lancer who specializes in sports media issues, predicts that the sports leagues will tighten restrictions even further on what online media can publish — and demand significant paid licensing arrangements to carry sanctioned broadband content. The result will be that only the biggest players in online sports media will be able to afford it.

This is the free enterprise system at work, points out Klein, “but I don’t think it’s healthy.”

What media sites can do

As readers continue to be attracted by the sports club sites, media sports site managers need to think about how to counter the threat. Club sites can and often already do match or exceed the technical sophistication of media sports sites. Media sites need to focus on how they market themselves (as objective reporters of the sports scene), and emphasize their strengths. Among the suggestions that some of the experts I interviewed for this article had:

Be interactive. Part of what club sites do is try to create a community of fans who are devoted to a team or sports. Media sites need to be the online community-gathering place for fans — not just a source of one-way news. Club sites offer interactive features; so must media sites.
Produce good original, objective journalism — and promote it. Good content and reporting that doesn’t toe the club line is still the principal advantage that media sports sites possess. As sports organization sites enhance their attractiveness to sports fans, media sites must promote their key advantage.
Try to work with teams and leagues in cooperative ways, such as setting up joint promotion and coverage deals — though it may be too late in the game to negotiate such arrangements.
Focus on the niche that you fill better than anyone else. If you have a columnist who is the world’s leading authority and well-known celebrity on the local college team, that writer may be what keeps Internet users from going over to the club sites, no matter how attractive and media-like they make their online offerings.
Play to your strengths. Don’t try to do everything, but focus on what your media site is best at. Link to other good online sports features elsewhere rather than do a mediocre job yourself.

Split personalities

Is this really a serious threat to media organizations? There’s debate within the sports media community. Terry Lefton, editor at large for Sports Business Daily and an observer of the sports media scene, says of corporate team and league sites, “They’re getting there” in terms of offering a media-like experience. They’ve recognized that they can’t get repeat visitors by acting like “house organs” for the teams, so sites like NHL.com will do things like run wire stories that might have negative things to say about their organizations, Lefton says. But sites like NFL.com, while great for stats junkies, still perform as though they are house organs.

Still, some of the best club sites are thinking more and more like media organizations. Indeed, consider the Web site of the Washington Capitals pro hockey team, one of the best team club sites. The majority owner of the Caps is billionaire Ted Leonsis of AOL — who knows media and knows online community.

This is a trend to watch.




Other recent columns

In case you missed recent Stop The Presses!, here are links to the last few columns: Honoring the Dead Online, Wednesday, Oct. 10
Are Newspaper Web Sites Dead?, Wednesday, Sept. 26
Attacks Lessons For News Web Sites, Wednesday, Sept. 19
Stopping Unauthorized Alterations Of Web Sites, Wednesday, Aug. 29
Spam Fighters Block Legit E-mail, Wednesday, Aug. 15
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