Sports Web Syndicate Hanging By a Thread

By: Steve Outing

There are lots of deals to be had on the Internet for Web site publishers looking for easy, cheap content. One of them is Realtime Syndication Network (RTSN), a New York content syndication service that has been providing real-time sports data services to some 150 Web sites — including more than 100 newspaper sites.

In recent weeks, a number of clients of RTSN (which also is known as Realtime Sports) have been concerned about the situation with the company, which lost most of its employees as a result of its venture capital investors failing to provide more capital in late summer. For a period of days recently, the company’s phones went unanswered and there was concern that the company had gone out of business. Not so, claims the founder and owner, but the venture is struggling to survive as its founder seeks a new partner to keep the business alive.

Through RTSN’s troubles, its affiliate Web sites continue to use its sports services, called Fan Ticker and Fan Center, which are still being supported. Those services work primarily on auto-pilot, with a sports producer keeping them running. They provide Web sites with a constantly updated sports scoring and text service — based on an Associated Press sports data feed — that looks like it’s part of the local site but actually is produced by RTSN.

RTSN was created to provide Web-ready content to its Web site customers covering major categories of interest. Its first offerings were the sports services, which news organizations can add to their Web sites without charge. The business model is that multiple Web sites use this “free content” and place their own design and branding on the content. RTSN sells national banner ads for the content, which run across the RTSN network, and local sites also can sell ads on their own versions of the content and retain that revenue.

Contracts between RTSN and its affiliate Web sites vary. Some sites run the sports services primarily because they want the additional content, while others view it as a revenue opportunity and place their own ads into the feature. At one Web site that signed a deal with RTSN last February, the College Press Network, “we are still waiting for our first check,” says CP Network’s Julio Fernandez. It’s unclear if those affiliates who are expecting to collect some revenues from RTSN will see any money out of the deal, unless owner and founder Bob Nederlander Jr. manages to find a new partner and funding to keep from going out of business.

Some Web site publishers don’t expect to make much money from their affiliation with RTSN. Al Gibes, online manager for the Las Vegas Review-Journal (Nevada), says the sports features from RTSN were viewed more as a cheap way to provide an additional reader service — real-time sports scores — that his site isn’t able to produce independently at this time.

At the Standard-Examiner in Odgen, Utah, online general manager Mark Shenefelt says using the RTSN co-branded sports scores service gave him added flexibility. The S-E Web staff consists of two people, and one of them was working a night shift in order to put national sports scores on the site. When the newspaper began using the RTSN sports service, Shenefelt was able to move his co-worker back to a daytime schedule to concentrate on other projects, but still serve his site’s users with current sports coverage in the evening. “It is a real benefit to us,” he says.

Shenefelt says he was able to sell a local sponsorship into the Sports Ticker service, and some other RTSN clients also were able to fill the local banner ad slot for the service.

Merger

Nederlander seeks to assure his affiliates that RTSN is not dead and continues to support its sports content services. He is currently seeking out a new partner after his venture capital investors decided late this summer not to pony up for a new capital call. RTSN earlier in the year had merged with eTicket, and the resulting company was called FeatureCast, which was an IdeaLab company. RTSN’s sports services and eTicket’s online syndication rights to Teen magazine, TV’s “America’s Most Wanted,” and the National Enquirer were to have been melded into a national syndication play, with advertising sold across the content, which was to have run on a large network of Web sites. It didn’t work out.

Nederlander, whose father owns a number of Broadway theaters and part of the New York Yankees baseball team, is trying to put a brave face on RTSN’s struggle to stay alive. He says he continues to talk to new potential Web site affiliates, and the sports services will continue to operate. He blames the phone outage on a “mix-up” with the phone company and says service has been restored. Affiliate sites with concerns or who need to contact the company can reach him directly (bobn@rtsn.com), or contact RTSN’s sports producer (adamb@rtsn.com), he says.

While his initial investors were unwilling to continue to support the concept with more money to keep the company operating, Nederlander says he’s still convinced that RTSN represents a valid business model. The idea of offering quality, free content to a large network of Web news sites is appealing to many publishers, especially those smaller operations that can’t afford to produce a lot of original content, he says. RTSN also offers GameStorm, a suite of multi-player online sports games produced by Kesmai, and Nederlander would like to offer additional third-party content if the business is able to survive and expand.

The RTSN service itself is supported primarily by national advertising sold across the 150-site network. However, RTSN relied primarily on national banner ad networks like Flycast rather than hiring an ad sales representative, according to a former employee who asked not to be named. Typically, it’s difficult if not impossible for a Web business to survive on the banner ad networks alone.

At its peak before its employees were laid off, RTSN had fewer than 10 employees. According to the former employee, the staff was told in a surprise announcement in mid October that money had run out and everyone was let go immediately with no notice. eTicket, the company that RTSN merged with in order to create FeatureCast, had a similar size staff on the West Coast, which also was let go.

RTSN has been successful in building its network. Among the 100 newspaper affiliates are the San Francisco Chronicle, Denver Rocky Mountain News, New York Post, Boston.com (Boston Globe), Guy Gannett Newspapers, InJersey (Gannett New Jersey Newspapers), and Morris Communications newspapers. It also has about 30 TV stations’ Web sites, and 20 radio stations, plus a couple of sports teams’ sites.

While the 150-site network in theory should generate a large number of pageviews, Nederland declines to reveal statistics on usage of the network sports services. The former employee estimates that RTSN was getting a respectable 3 million pageviews per month.

Nothing new?

Online news industry consultant Mark Potts had this reaction to my recent column about the Chicago Sun-Times’ I-Challenge initiative to build Web sites for local businesses:

“What the Chicago Sun-Times is doing is hardly original — it’s exactly what the Washington Post (and others) have been doing for a couple years now in creating Infosites for local businesses as part of a Yellow Pages business. (In the Post’s case, this is part of the CitySearch relationship, but all Web site design and construction is done in-house by the Post.) The Post has built something like 1,500 of these things.”

In my column, I did note that building Web sites for local businesses was hardly original. I deemed the Sun-Times effort worthy of mention in my column because for publishers who do not have a relationship with a Yellow Pages directory vendor like CitySearch or Zip2, the I-Challenge concept represents an alternative. Smaller papers without the Post’s resources might consider similar initiatives in partnership with local business asociations and chambers of commerce, as the Chicago paper has done, to get more local businesses online.

A critical view

Another reader, online travel columnist Joe Harkins, who also works with a Web site custom-developer, has strong reservations about the I-Challenge concept. Here are some (long, but worthwhile) excerpts from his note to me:

“The packaged Web sites idea is dumb. PT Barnum’s comment to the contrary not withstanding, I predict this idea will fail because it underestimates the intelligence of the target market. …

“The Web sites offered as samples make one of the points that lie at the heart of my critique. Those samples are what the Web developer trade calls ‘first generation’ or ‘brochure’ sites. We generally stopped building sites like this three years ago beause (a) they are basically useless as e-commerce tools and (b) current technology makes them functionally obsolete.

“Except for an e-mail link, there is no interactivity. There are no CGI forms for prequalifying the contacts or gathering info, no searchable online catalogs, no shopping cart, no realtime inventory data, no store locater and driving/public transportation directions from the site user’s home to the advertiser’s store, no online ordering, no e-mail routing system, no site monitoring tools to help the site owner learn how his clients are using the site, etc.

“Web sites that offer such functional e-commerce features are changing the distribution landscape, not digital brochures like those samples. And as for the deal itself, costwise? A Yellow Pages ad for the same money is a far better buy than the I-Challenge offer. A far better Web site could be built using either the tools found on many existing Web sites or one of a number of inexpensive, no-brainer packages that include dozens of pre-configured, customizable templates. …

“No one will make any money on the concept except the guys who are selling the Web site, and even then, they have to sell some packages, which I doubt will happen to any significant degree. No business that buys one of those packages will sign up for it again because after some experience they’ll know they wasted their money. … “I can’t wait to create the prospectus and Web site design for a newspaper publisher who wakes up one day, his third eye opens, and he realizes that he could be selling his merchandise, booking orders and earning profit on the sale, not merely telling readers where the stuff is on display. It’s a logical development that WILL come. It only requires one newspaper with the insight as to their real potential in the distribution revolution. It’s amused me that they have failed to see it while it’s happening right in front of them. …

“Sellers have bypassed newspapers by going online and doing their own advertising and making direct sales. What’s so wrong about newspapers doing the same thing? They have credibility, brand name recognition, service infrastructure, capital, demographic marketing data — all the elements of a successful selling environment, but they seem to be stuck in the concept that they are merely the advertising medium.”

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If you have a newsworthy item about the online news/interactive news media business, please send me a note.

This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

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