Sports Services on the Web: A Dangerous Newspaper Competitor

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By: Steve Outing

I recently received a slick flyer in my physical mail box (as opposed to my email box, where I receive the majority of correspondence these days) for SportsLine USA, a new Web service promoted by celebs Joe Namath and Mike Schmidt. This piece of junk mail caught my eye for a couple important reasons.

Mainstream promotions of Web services

This is the first time I can remember receiving a direct-mail piece for a niche Web service. Like all of you, I’ve been inundated by junk mail — and junk disks — from America Online and Prodigy. And I’ve received a barrage of mailers from companies offering Internet access. But until now, no Web content provider has aimed its message at me in such a traditional way as direct mail.

This is significant because it demonstrates how quickly the World Wide Web has grown up. A year ago, a service like SportsLine USA would have been available on one of the commercial online services. This is how SportsLine promotes itself (from the back of the flyer): “SportsLine USA is available on the World Wide Web through consumer online services or direct Internet access at http://www.sportsline.com”

That’s a profound change from last year. As most publishers wanting to do business online have figured out, the way to reach the widest audience today is to put up a Web service. Now that America Online, CompuServe, Delphi, eWorld and Prodigy all offer Web access, Web content providers have a huge potential audience.

How to let computer users know about your fantastic new Web site is another matter, since you won’t have the online services’ marketing muscle behind you. (Well, unless you are a big-name content provider, that’s likely to have been of limited availability anyway.) Among the best ways to promote a stand-alone Web service will be via traditional channels — direct mail, advertisements in newspapers, magazines and TV, etc.

Expect to receive a lot more “junk mail” from Web services in the coming year — in addition to a bunch more AOL sign-up diskettes.

Stealing newspaper readers?

The second reason SportsLine’s flyer caught my interest is that here is yet another online service that has the potential to lessen readership of newspaper sports sections. SportsLine USA joins ESPNET SportsZone (a service of ESPN and Starwave) as a national online sports service that offers much more depth than a traditional printed sports section could dream of including.

SportsLine’s services include final scores, games in progress, standings, team and player statistics, detailed match-up analysis, limited edition memorabilia, commentary, bulletin boards, electronic mail, fantasy leagues, real-time chat, and games and contests.

SportsLine is not run by a newspaper company — it was founded by high-tech entrepreneur Mike Levy, who has rounded up such celebrities as Namath, Schmidt and Bob Costas to take part. Why hasn’t the newspaper industry come up with more compelling sports services of its own to head off this formidable competition?

Only the Raleigh News & Observer has created a comparable online offering, The Sports Server, a Web service with a national (U.S.) appeal. USA Today has an extensive online sports service, but it is part of a Web site that charges $12.95 per month and requires a CompuServe-brand Web browser, and thus is little competitive threat to SportsLink and its ilk, which are free to anyone on the Web. Many other online newspaper services offer sports areas, but most are still modest efforts that lack the depth of SportsLine USA or ESPNET SportsZone.

As the online sports niche services mature, they pose a competitive threat to online newspapers that don’t create compelling sports areas of their own. But they threaten the traditional newspaper as well. It is not hard to imagine that devoted sports fans and stats junkies — who may subscribe to the printed newspaper for nothing more than the sports section — could discover that they can get what they want on the World Wide Web for modest cost. (SportsLine USA costs $4.95 per month or $39.95 per year, after a 30-day free trial.)

Publishers need to take these competitive services seriously, lest they wake one day to find that their sports sections are no longer the reader draw they have been for so long. As a newspaper industry veteran, I hate to see services like SportsLine created without the involvement of the newspaper business. (I should note, though, that SportsLine has hired some sports writers away from newspapers.) I believe our industry can offer up a better online product, leveraging the reputations of local sports writers and columnists. Newspaper companies need to create competing online sports services that will draw computer users away from national services like SportsLine USA, or buy into those ventures as equity partners.

Steve

Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note at outings@netcom.com.

This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at outings@netcom.com

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