Live From the Stadium! ... On the Web?

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By: Steve Outing Are you annoyed by the tired commentary of TV sports broadcasters during football games? Would you rather hear the comments of a newspaper's sports writers during the game? Well, if you're a fan of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings, a new feature on the St. Paul Pioneer Press' PioneerPlanet Web site will allow you to read the expert commentary of two of that newspaper's football writers, during the game.

The idea at first does sound a bit crazy. If you're watching a Vikings game on TV, beer in hand, are you really going to log on to the Web to see what a newspaper columnist has to say? For most football viewers, the answer is clearly going to be no. Yet there may still be a market for this type of service -- among rabid fans who can't get enough and turn to the Web during commercial breaks, halftime and after the game, and among Vikings faithful who live outside of Minnesota and can't get the game on TV or radio. Down the technological road, the service could find a market when TV and PC are one unit, and running a Web page in one screen while watching the game on another might appeal to some sports fans.

Live from the stadium

The Pioneer Press' experiment is called Vikings Now, and was launched last Sunday when the Vikings defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Each game the Vikings play, Pioneer Press sports columnist Bob Sansevere and Vikings writer Greg Johnson are spending some of their time sending in commentary throughout the game which is posted to the Web site. Staff photographers carrying high-end digital cameras also are sending in several action photos through the game which are quickly posted online. After the game, the site adds audio interviews from the locker room.

The concept has a chance of working largely because of the name recognition of the two writers. In particular, Sansevere is a well known name among Vikings fans for his column and his appearances on a local radio show. In classic sports columnist tradition, he is a controversial personality at the newspaper; while many fans love him, just as many abhor many of his opinions. Love him or hate him, many serious Vikings fans are sure to read what he writes.

According to Pioneer Press senior editor/online Brett Benson, the idea for two prominent sports writers from the print side to contribute game-time analysis for the Web originated from the Sports section, not the online staff. "We were thrilled," Benson says, and the Web department jumped at the chance to create the service -- which was no small feat.

The initial idea was that each writer would file brief comments to the Web site at least every 5 minutes of game time and/or after every score. For the first attempt last Sunday, Sansevere filed about five times and Johnson filed three or four times. Working from the press box, with their laptop computers connected via phone line to the newspaper's SII editing system, the writers send in their commentary, which is then proofread and put on the Web site -- usually within two minutes of when the text was filed.

Photographers covering the game for the paper carry high-end Nikon digital cameras, whose output is sufficient for print as well as the less-demanding Web site. A photo editor carrying a laptop computer is being sent to the games, who sends the photos in via modem. Photographers hand PC cards containing their latest shots to a runner, who sprints them to the photo editor. Benson says that without the live Web photos, there would be no need for an in-stadium photo editor, since print deadlines are, of course, more relaxed.

Refreshing

The site itself is set up using frames, with the score in one frame; the writers' commentary in another; and photos in another. The score frame is set to refresh every 90 seconds, and the text and photos frames every three minutes, so there's no need for the user to hit the Web browser "reload" button to see the latest content. The site also contains links to other scores throughout the NFL.

Benson points out that Pioneer Planet's sports pages are among the heaviest trafficked on the site. Many Vikings fans "can't get enough" coverage of their team, so the idea of offering them in-game and post-game online features is likely to attract a following. After the game, the site also hosts increasingly busy live chat and Vikings discussion forums.

Some of the e-mail messages received by the Web site after the first Vikings experiment were from Vikings fans living outside of Minnesota who did not get the game on their local TV or radio stations. "Watching" the game (in a sort of slow-motion) on the Web was the best option they had available, short of waiting for the following morning's newspaper reports. Benson says the numbers of people in that situation is likely modest, and they don't make up a particularly appealing audience to advertisers. Nevertheless, the live Vikings service does fulfill a need.

Another group that responded after the first test was weekend workers who couldn't watch the game on TV, yet they had Internet access during game time. Benson says a couple of people in that situation wrote in to thank the Web site for offering the service.

Dependent on team owners

Pioneer Planet is walking a fine line with this project. As with most professional sports, football team owners are watching independent Web ventures by news organizations, and certain limitations are placed on media covering games from within a stadium. Benson says the Web site staff recently received a letter from the Vikings organization outlining what the team would tolerate, and it is felt that the Vikings Now feature falls within the team's guidelines. The current system of the writers filing periodic updates throughout the game is allowable, whereas a live play-by-play commentary posted to the Web from someone inside the stadium would be prohibited by the team. Likewise, a limited number of photos posted from inside the stadium during the game is deemed acceptable, but publishing too many would not be.

Benson acknowledges that there could be tensions down the road, if team owners like the Vikings' decide that newspapers' Web coverage of games competes too much with the teams' own Web sites -- which someday could offer something similar to what the Pioneer Press site has begun to offer during the games. "For now, we believe we are complying with what the Vikings have suggested is their policy," he says.

Increasingly, sports bodies are viewing newspaper sports sites as competition for their own Web ventures. As I've reported in this column, organizations like the Professional Golfers Association, NCAA and U.S. Open Tennis Championship restrict news organizations from transmitting live reports or photos from tournament grounds during the action. Football owners could likewise clamp down at some future date.

One possibility would be for team owners to sell "Web rights" to cover a game just as they license broadcast rights. Says Benson, "I hope it never gets to the point where papers have to bid to get rights to cover certain teams (for their Web sites)."

Money-maker?

The Vikings Now feature was designed to provide a service for the serious sports fan and out-of-town Vikings fans; it was not designed specifically as a money-maker and the Web staff was not forced to cost-justify the project, Benson says. The Pioneer Planet ad staff is beginning to try to sell placements to advertisers, however. The feature has gotten significant in-paper promotion, he says, so many readers and advertisers know about it.

Benson views the concept as "raising the bar" for online news sites by offering up-to-the-minute coverage. Increasingly, users expect serious news sites to update right away, not wait several hours to post information about an event. This may not be the holy grail of sports Web coverage, Benson says, but it's an experiment worth trying. If usage of the live-commentary coverage flops during the trial run this year, then the site's staff will have learned something.

The Vikings' next game is this Sunday at noon Central time in St. Louis. That's your next chance to see the Vikings Now feature in action during the game.

Contact: Brett Benson, bbenson@pioneerplanet.infi.net< p> Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at:steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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