Olympics Web Sites: How Are They Doing?

By: Steve Outing

Here we are nearly halfway through the Summer Olympics, and if you're anyone like me you've been watching TV a lot in recent days. But is the Olympics a big event for World Wide Web sites as well? It would seem so, since news organizations that have created separate Olympics sites or included extensive Olympics coverage are reporting substantial increases in Web traffic.

This surprises me a bit, since I had viewed the Olympics as very much a television event. With so many hours of televised coverage -- 8-plus hours a day on NBC in the U.S. -- I had predicted that relatively few people would sit down at their computers to find even more coverage. I appear to have been mistaken.

Typical of what we're seeing is being experienced by USA Today Online, which saw a record number of hits to the site on Wednesday -- 6.4 million total, of which 1.1 million was for its Olympics coverage. The Olympics pages started out slower last weekend, with 350,000 on Saturday and 400,000 on Sunday.

This weekday increase is fairly common for Olympics sites. While fans are at home on the weekends with their TV sets, during the week a lot of folks are at their office computers with no TV. Webmasters are seeing a lot of activity during workday hours (especially around lunchtime) from people on corporate networks checking in on the latest Olympics results. For USA Today, normal weekday traffic typically bests the weekends.

USA Today Online deputy sports editor Steve Klein reports that, just as on TV, gymnastics is the biggest draw. On Wednesday, the site's gymnastics pages saw 83,000 hits, compared to the next best, soccer and swimming, both at only 12,000 hits.

Canadian coverage on the Web

Southam Newspapers' New Media Centre in Canada has created the Canada In Atlanta Web site, which keeps tabs on how Canadian athletes are doing in the games. Southam's Paul De Groot reports that the site, which is linked on Southam's newspaper Web sites, started off on Friday (the day of the opening ceremonies) with 110,000 hits; rose to 180,000 on Saturday; 200,000 on Sunday; then climbed to 338,000 on Monday. The site rose to 356,000 hits on Tuesday, then dropped back to 334,000 on Wednesday. It would appear that the office workers are having an impact on this site as well.

Canada In Atlanta was developed by the Southam New Media Centre in conjunction with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and is heavy on profiles of Canadian athletes and background information about specific events. De Groot says of the site, "People from other countries might find our news coverage, which is less exclusively American, to be more balanced than some of the American-based 'official' sites."

At the Web site of The Press daily newspaper in Christchurch, New Zealand, Peter Wiggin reports that its Olympics pages are now the most popular on the site, substantially beating the front page news section. "Our stats are steadily increasing," he says, "so it won't be until after the games that we can get a handle on whether our traffic increased or whether it is just a popular page for our regular readers." Like the Canada In Atlanta site, The Press' online coverage includes news of New Zealand athletes' successes in the games.

A summer of big events

At NandO.net, the Web news service of McClatchy Newspapers, traffic is up significantly -- to 1.2 million total hits on the site on Wednesday compared to 1 million one week earlier. NandO is offering extensive Olympics coverage on its Sports Server site. Executive editor Seth Effron says that this is an unusual summer of major news events, all of which have brought boosts in traffic to the NandO site. It started with Hurricane Bertha, continued with the crash of TWA Flight 800, and now is a result of the Olympics.

Effron notes that viewership of NandO's Olympics coverage seems to follow the norm for his Web service, with the busiest times being the middle of the day during the week. "We can follow lunch time across America," he says of the spurt in activity between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. U.S. Eastern time. He's also seeing a boost in accesses to the Olympics pages in the mid and late evening, as fans seek out results that are not available on television.

At WashingtonPost.com, managing editor Mary Lou Fulton says that it's been difficult to track how much of a boost the site has seen because of the Olympics, due to the TWA Flight 800 crash which occurred two days before the opening ceremonies and brought a big boost in traffic to the site. TWA and Olympics coverage are about equally popular, she says, so it's difficult to know which prompted an individual's visit to the site in recent days. Her hunch is that the plane crash caused more of an increase in traffic than the Olympics. While not offering numbers, she indicated that WashingtonPost.com got a large bump in traffic on the Wednesday of the plane crash, which has continued through today.

Why Olympics Web sites work

Given the amount of televised coverage, it's interesting to see how well the Olympics Web sites are doing. Now, compared to a worldwide television audience numbering in the billions, Olympics activity on the Web is minuscule. But that's not to discount the importance of a news organization publishing on the Web. There are several reasons why Olympics fans might use the Web to supplement their diet of TV coverage of the games:

* At least in the U.S., NBC's coverage of the Olympics leaves an information shortage on the "less glamorous" sports. Many Olympics Web sites are taking advantage of this TV shortcoming by offering in-depth news of all events. TV-only fans get a much-edited view of the games.

* For the die-hard sports fan, results and statistics are a must-have, yet TV falls far, far short here, and so do many newspaper sports sections. Web sites are able to offer much more depth.

* Olympics Web sites often are updated throughout the day, allowing viewers to get results and news on their timetable rather than waiting for a TV network to report them or a newspaper to be printed.

* For office workers or students, who may be on a computer network but not have a television available, Olympics Web sites are a way to stay up to date while away from the tube -- as the reports above indicate many people are doing.

* The Web is a nice supplement to televised coverage, and gives viewers something else to do during the commercials. NandO's Effron guesses that some of his Web viewers are turning to their PCs during commercial breaks.

* In the U.S., NBC's reporting of the Olympics not only ignores many sports entirely, it takes an extremely U.S.-centric view. Web sites can focus on a particular sport for in-depth coverage, or in the case of Web sites from other countries that lack locally originated television coverage, they can keep track of local athletes and medal counts.

What are we learning?

USA Today Online's editorial systems administrator, Michael Hallinan, suggested that Web sites' coverage of the Olympics could have gone further. "I think Web publishers should have given more consideration to what they could do to draw users WHILE the users were watching TV -- interactive possibilities, comments on developments and the coverage itself, for instance," he says. We'll have a chance to implement those ideas in two more years.

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