'Worldwide Leader in Sports' Expands Its Web; ESPN Constantly Absorbing Independent Sites, Writers

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Henry Abbott was perfectly content writing on his own.

He had created a Web site, TrueHoop.com, and watched it grow into one of the more popular places for news, commentary and offbeat tidbits about professional basketball. And he was making a decent living, even if the arrival of his paycheck was a bit sporadic.

But then he got a call from ESPN, the self-proclaimed "worldwide leader in sports."

"I was blogging along, perfectly happy," said Abbott, who operates TrueHoop from his New Jersey home. "I wasn't one of those guys that created a Web site just to sell it. But ESPN called, and it touched off some discussions. I said, 'I just want to keep doing this. I don't want to change it.' I never would have agreed to do something that would have compromised the site."

After about a year of negotiating, ESPN bought TrueHoop in February and is now integrating the site - and Abbott - into the company's coverage of the NBA on ESPN.com.

Abbott's story is becoming a common one. ESPN's TrueHoop purchase came shortly after the company bought Talented Mr. Roto, a popular independently run fantasy sports Web site. And last month ESPN bought Jayski's Silly Season Site, a NASCAR-themed Web site run by North Carolina resident Jay Adamczyk.

"In the end, we're all about giving sports fans what they want," said John Kosner, senior vice president and general manager of ESPN New Media. "We often turn to our own people and ask what sites they look at. And we hear a lot of the same names."

ESPN also has been expanding its roster of contributing writers by partnering with several who have been working independently on the Web. Writers appearing on ESPN.com now include Kyle Whelliston, who operates a Web site devoted to college basketball's "mid-major" conferences; John Hollinger, who publishes his own statistical analysis of the NBA; and Paul Lukas, who operates a blog devoted to discussion of sports uniforms.

The rationale for independent writers partnering with ESPN is simple: The company sees a chance to expand its content and increase traffic to its Web site, and the writer gets to reach new audiences and make a sound living writing about what they love. For most writers, the ESPN relationship has allowed them to concentrate on their work without worrying about how they will pay the bills.

"By plugging into the ESPN machine, their financials improve overnight," Kosner said. "They, in turn, help us realize a business opportunity we can't get otherwise."

The push by ESPN to gain new visitors to its Web site is mainly a business effort; ESPN.com generates more than 13 million unique visitors a month but recently has seen a decline in visitors and is neck and neck with Foxsports.com in popularity. ESPN also has been searching for new writers since the unexpected deaths of columnists Hunter Thompson in 2005 and Ralph Wiley in 2004.

Some ESPN contributors still hold full-time jobs in other fields. Joe Lunardi, for instance, works in the communications department at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia while being paid by ESPN to help predict the field of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. He had done "bracketology" work on the side while working for the "Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook" before being noticed by ESPN about five years ago. …