Cal and Shaq have one. Michael Jordan is getting one. Even John Daly and Bill Walton have them. While it doesn’t yet hold the same status (or bank account heft) as an endorsement deal for an athletic shoe or soft drink, a personal Web site has become a new yardstick in the hyper-competitive world of star athletes. “What this really is is the fan club of the ’90s,” says Tom George, an agent who represents such marquee jocks as David Robinson and Steffi Graf.
But as more and more athletes try their hand at online publishing, many potential conflicts and questions arise.
For instance, will advertisers and sponsors pay for an untested concept? Can athletes find the time in their schedules to update their Web sites regularly and keep demanding fans interested? Will product category endorsement exclusivities-not to mention team and league image rights-be honored online? And can high-priced stars, their tenacious agents and cash-hungry Web publishers like SportsLine USA equitably divide up what little profit may be available in the early days?
Some skeptics view athlete sites as nothing more than electronic fan letters or a distribution channel for peddling schlocky merchandise. Others see the cachet of a star as a clever means of getting deep-pocketed advertisers onto the Net.
One area publishers and agents agree upon is the need to retain category exclusivities online. The risk of alienating sponsors by monkeying with ongoing category exclusivities is not trivial. “You have to limit sponsorships to those brands you have an existing relationship with,” says George, senior vice president of athlete marketing for Advantage International, McLean, Va. “You don’t want to kill yourself in the real world, where the real dollars are.”
George collaborated with Detroit Pistons star Grant Hill on a site that debuted last year. The site was profitable, George says, because it was “self-liquidating.” GMC Trucks, a Hill endorsee, sponsored a sweepstakes on the site, which George says insured repeat traffic and upfront revenue.
Hill has since formed an internal marketing team to oversee his site and other sponsorship deals. His site is currently sponsored by athletic shoe maker Fila, which has made him a focal point of its online and offline promotions.
Just because athletes are offering personal sites doesn’t mean advertisers will follow them to the Net, however. In order to cash in on a star’s appeal, the athletes themselves, with their agents’ support, have to perform like publishers. “The biggest thing about these sites is the frequency of updates,” says Tom Hagopian, president and chief operating officer of InterZine Productions, which produces such sports sites as iGolf and iRace. “It’s not just a site that looks good; it’s the care and feeding of it.”
When he worked at ESPN SportsZone, Hagopian was approached by agents who were interested in getting the prowess of SportsZone and its interactive partner, Starwave, behind their clients’ online ventures. Hagopian was skeptical then and remains so today.
“You can go to a lot of these vanity sites and find out a lot about a subject,” Hagopian says. “But they [need to be] living, breathing publications. People want interaction. And the more popular these guys are, the less time they’ll have” for fans who log onto the site.
“Content is king, and that’s what it will come down to,” agrees John Vail, director of new media technologies at PepsiCo, in describing the athlete sites the soft drink giant intends to support.
Today, most athlete sites resemble mail-order catalogs where the rabid fan can buy a $70 Shaquille O’Neal mesh long-sleeve shirt or a $459 lithograph of John Daly hitting out of a sand trap at St. Andrew’s Golf Club in Scotland. While merchandise revenue trickles in, the bulk of potential earnings comes from selling advertising and sponsorships on the sites.
SportsLine USA put up its first crop of 15 athlete sites without an immediate profit in mind, says Kenneth Dotson, vice president of marketing. SportsLine builds, markets and maintains athlete sites and has a pipeline into big-name stars through an affiliation with leading rep firm International Management Group. Only recently has SportsLine become more aggressive about securing sponsors for the sites. “Those who want to be on the site will pay because that’s what our revenue model is,” Dotson says.
One encouraging sign is the notoriously reluctant Pepsi agreeing to pay SportsLine to sponsor the Shaq World site. The sponsorship remains Pepsi’s sole online buy to date. Pepsi has promoted a number of O’Neal’s off-the-court endeavors, including his latest film, Steel, on pepsi.com.
Nike’s strategy with athlete sites is also being closely monitored. Nike has kept a low profile on the Web to date, but with its huge stable of pro endorsers and iconic brand, it may be hard to resist the lure of online extensions. Nike representatives declined to comment on any Internet plans.
Perhaps Nike’s biggest hero, Michael Jordan, will go up on the Web by late October. His debut will come via a site developed by SportsLine, which says a number of his endorsement partners have expressed interest in signing on. The buzz around the site and its famous namesake pegs initial construction costs at more than $1 million. Dotson won’t comment on the cost, but he says Jordan could perhaps have “the most elaborate of all sites on the Web.”
If Jordan’s site proves a slam dunk with his regular sponsors, that could be the signal needed to spur sponsorships from Web-only brands as well. Since brands like Amazon.com or CDNow have yet to venture into offline sponsorship deals, starting online would be a no-brainer.
Yet agents and Web publishers remain cautious about lending their properties too readily to tech startups. “You don’t want to sell it on the cheap.” says Advantage’s George. “You don’t want to make this on a cost-per-thousand sell because the reach is not there yet.” He also notes that cutting low-cost sponsorship deals on the Web could alienate such heavy media spenders as auto makers and soft drink marketers. The sponsor, not the star, still controls the checkbook.