Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Full Court Press

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Full Court Press

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Print, Web battle dominates NCAA tournament action

"Newspapers do an incredible job covering sports events on a daily basis, but the Web brings a new daytime part."

Hart Hooten, general manager of CNN/SI, CNN, and Sports Illustrated's joint Web page

Following the winning shot, the final whistle, and the last announcer's commentary, this year's NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament will undoubtedly rank as the most covered U.S. sports event ever.

With the most Web activity devoted to a single sports championship, more reports on multiple networks than in past years, and increased newspaper coverage and circulation, the 60th annual tournament has changed the face of big-time sports coverage forever, according to sports industry leaders.

"The growth is just huge and grows and grows and grows," says Jim Heavner, president of VilCom, a North Carolina-based sports marketing company that focuses on college basketball.

Statistics from Finalfour.net, the official Web Site of the NCAA tournament, indicate that Web activity for the three-week event will likely surpass that of all previous major sports events. The official site -- overseen by Host Communications of Lexington, Ky., and Total Sports of Raleigh, N.C. -- averaged about 20 million hits per day, a 150% increase over last year, according to tournament officials. That is about twice as much as the 1996 Atlanta Olympics' official Web site produced daily during its 16-day schedule of events, and a sharp increase over the most recent Super Bowl and World Series Web sites.

"We are caught up in the whole Internet popularity boom," says James Jackson, the NCAA tournament Web manager.

Such skyrocketing Web sports activity has sports veterans wondering what's next.

After throwing everything they had at the three-week college basketball extravaganza, top generals in the ongoing war between Web and traditional newspaper sports coverage admit that the future is unclear.

Most realize that the days of fans watching a Final Four, Super Bowl, or World Series on television and then waiting for the next day's paper to read up on statistics and analysis are over. But predictions are mixed on how the Web will fit into future sports coverage as it vies with newspapers, television, and cable outlets for sports fans' attention.

"The Internet becomes a bigger aspect of our life every day, and in a way that hurts television and newspapers," says Bob Williams, president of Bums Sports Marketing of Chicago. "But I think it has a long way to go before it eliminates newspaper coverage of sports. Not everyone owns a computer and people have a habit of picking up the newspaper."

Bob Dorfman, author of the Sports Marketers Scouting Report in San Francisco, agrees. Although he sees a rising interest in Web sports coverage, he says it's too soon to tell where the Web-newspaper battle will go.

"More money is going into the Web, but you can't discount the traditional media yet," he says. "It's still easier to pick up the paper and read all about it in my hands."

Net loyalists, however, note that on March 8, the day the tournament pairings were announced, ESPN.com had 12.7 million hits, its most ever, compared to 7 million hits on the same day in 1998. In addition, ESPN.com's Tournament Challenge game had more than 400,000 online contestants this year compared to 248,000 last year and 100,000 when the game launched in 1996. "You can't get that immediacy [of the Web] anywhere else," says Eric Handler, communications manager for ESPN.com, which saw its daily activity nearly double during this year's tournament. "We give the fans something they can't get in the newspaper."

Other Web sites, such as CNN/SI -- which saw a 200% activity increase during this tournament over 1998 -- say the increase is based on better Web coverage and the changing habits of sports fans, who want every scrap of information or tidbit available. …

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