ESPN.com Inks Exclusive Pact with MSN



Looking to expand its online audience significantly, Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN.com unit struck a cross-marketing deal with Microsoft Corp. to be the sole sports-news provider to Microsoft’s MSN Web portal.

The agreement is the latest of several deals Microsoft has made with content providers as it attempts to beef up MSN, which is locked in a battle for users and subscribers with AOL Time Warner Inc.’s America Online. For Disney, the deal provides broader Web distribution for its ESPN.com service, the most popular sports Web site, and Microsoft technology.

“Our intention here is to work with Microsoft to help us grow our business,” said John Skipper, senior vice president and general manager of ESPN.com. The site has averaged 6.4 million unique users a month during the past year, a figure Skipper says can rise above 10 million with the additional exposure on MSN. ESPN.com wants to expand its subscriber base for premium services, including one targeted at members of fantasy sports leagues.

Under the arrangement, MSN users who click on the site’s sports channel will be delivered to the ESPN.com Web site. ESPN.com has placed prominent MSN logos on its site, which link users back to MSN’s site. The companies will try to devise joint advertising packages.

ESPN.com will begin using important Microsoft technologies, notably the Windows Media Player and its Web-authentication service, Passport. ESPN.com has used the multimedia software of Microsoft rival Real Networks Inc., and Real Player will continue to be available on ESPN.com. Skipper said as part of the Microsoft deal, the site will “make a concerted and aggressive effort to use the Windows Media Player.”

ESPN.com agreed to use Passport, the service that stores computer users’ log-in names and passwords so they can sign on to multiple Web sites without re-entering information. In this instance, that will allow users to log in once to access e-mail and other services from both the MSN and ESPN.com sites.

The Passport technology has raised privacy concerns because of the amount of information it might allow Microsoft to gather. Skipper said the ESPN.com site will continue to allow users to log in independently of Passport, if they prefer.

Copyright (c) 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.