Internet Sites Fight for Roles as Profitable Sports Medium

Article excerpt

The sweeps period is ending for network television but is heating up for sports Internet sites.

No one will die or get married, but each of the leading sports sites this month will provide an unprecedented amount of offers, rebates, multimillion dollar contests and exclusive programming, all driven by the white-hot intensity of the NCAA basketball tournament. This month will fulfill the traditional sweeps role of setting ad rates and will be the start of several seven-figure marketing pushes.

So with traffic and consumer awareness surging for popular sites like ESPN.com, cnnsi.com, SportsLine.com and others, a golden age for sports on the Internet is developing, right?

Not exactly.

Internet sports will be a $3 billion industry by 2003, five times the current level, according to new research firm Jupiter Communications. By that time, each of the leading sites and many smaller ones likely will be profitable. Following sports on line is quickly becoming a revered pastime, just as watching games on TV and Internet rotisserie leagues have become full-fledged industries of their own.

But a major hurdle awaits media-oriented Web site like ESPN.com and cnnsi.com. The four major sports leagues are working harder than ever to assume a strong place in the Internet, no longer simply dispensing official, sanitized information. Want real-time stats, streaming video and access to top players? It's all there on NBA.com, NHL.com and other league sites. The same goes for archived highlights, fan polls and sortable statistics.

Washingtoncaps.com, the brainchild of Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, features a full array of NHL news and stats that rivals many of the media sites.

NHL.com, now the full property of the NHL after it bought out the interest owned by IBM, didn't even shy away from the embarrassment of the Marty McSorley stick-swinging incident.

Similarly, the leagues have ceased being bashful about protecting their trademarks, taking legal action against sites using team logos and player names without permission or pirating game broadcasts over the Internet. The NFL Players Association recently sued several on-line hosts of player Web sites, including the prominent Athlete Direct.

Part of the motivation is, of course, control, along with a sizable chunk of that $3 billion figure.

"[NBA.com] is not a separate dot-com operation or a peripheral thing. This is the evolution of our league," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "People ask me often if I'd ever want to head an on-line company. I already do."

Even SportsLine.com, a dominant site with millions of daily visitors and lucrative long-term partnerships with CBS, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, admits the leagues have an upper hand. …