IQ News: Overtime! Red-Hot Sports Sites Take Their Game To The Final Four




This year there will be no off-season for online sports. Just as Web traffic is returning to everyday levels following records set by visitors to sites covering the Winter Olympics, the next three weeks of NCAA college basketball championships promise to eclipse all previous totals for major sports events on the Net, including the Super Bowl and World Series. And that promise has touched off a new round of jostling among the media powerhouses that see gold in Web sports.
“This is the strongest affinity-based national sports event,” says George Schlukbier, president of Total Sports, producer and partner in the official Web site of the NCAA, www.Finalfour.net. A unique combination of loyal alumni fans and teams scattered across the country, widespread office pools and regional-only television coverage in the tournament’s early stages makes the Web the medium of choice for the largely male, college-educated demographic attracted by this event (and the advertisers who seek them).
After the initial flurry of interest in match-ups announced on “Selection Sunday” (March 8), the biggest spikes in tournament-related activity will come on Thursday and Friday (March 12-13) when elimination rounds begin for the 64 men’s and 64 women’s teams. Visits then fall off and build up again until the finals are decided on March 30. Last year’s official Final Four site from Total Sports generated nearly 10 million page views and 2.5 million ad impressions. This year, the Raleigh, N.C. sports packager expects to triple the traffic with cybercasts of 63 men’s games and 15 women’s games in streaming audio and still pictures.
The renewal of sports madness online comes on the heels of a battle by press release regarding site traffic during the Winter Olympics, evidence of the contentious rivalry for bragging rights among ad-supported Web sports sites. ESPN Sportszone claimed the No. 1 spot in traffic among sports and Olympic sites, “46 percent greater than its nearest sport site competitor,” citing a report by Web tracking firm Relevant Knowledge. Using the same report, CBS Sportsline called itself most improved, with a 245 percent increase in traffic over the equivalent period before the Olympics. For CNN/SI’s sports coverage on Time New Media’s Pathfinder network, other numbers proved victory over CBS Sportsline.
Most significantly, according to Relevant Knowledge, the four leading sites during the Nagano events, including IBM’s official site, attracted 4,688,000 unique visitors aged 12+ in the United States over 15 days. With these print magazine-like reader numbers at stake, is it any wonder the gloves are off in the fight for Web sports supremacy?
“It’s great fun,” says Mike Levy, president and chief executive officer of Florida-based SportsLine USA, publisher of CBS SportsLine and other sports sites. “This is competiton with skilled adversaries. They put out a good product. We just put out a better one. We made $2 million in advertising on the Olympics; if ESPN Sportszone made three- or four-hundred thousand, I’d be surprised.”
The CBS Sportsline site benefited from promotional announcements on CBS Television, which broadcast the Winter Olympics–nd which will be airing the NCAA basketball tournament as well. With CBS recently paying $4 billion for television rights to the NFL, CBS Sportsline will also be reaping added promotion during TV football coverage come fall, when continued Web growth will likely cause March Madness traffic numbers to be surpassed.
During last season’s NFL coverage, CBS Sportsline researchers found an interesting pattern of use: “About 50 percent of our Web traffic during a game was from people watching it at the same time on television,” according to Levy. Later, when catching up with scores and stats that don’t make the morning paper, fans apparently feel little guilt in using workplace computers to access sports sites during lunch time. “Our biggest usage is from noon to one, East Coast time, on weekdays,” says Jim Jenks, assistant managing editor of ESPN Sportszone, out of Bristol, Conn.
Because visitors typically must seek out sports sites via computer with greater effort than couch-bound TV viewers, they are desirable to advertisers. “Gatorade is looking for people who are active and love sports,” says Liz Bardetti, advertising manager for Gatorade Thirst Quencher. “We get them with our buys on ESPN Sportszone, NBA.com, and NFL.com.” All three sites are engineered by Starwave, with headquarters in Redmond, Wash. Gatorade also advertises on MichaelJordan.com, produced by SportsLine USA.
The advertiser mix for the top sports sites is evolving from high tech (IBM, Intel, and Microsoft among big spenders on multiple sites) to mass market, too: On ESPN’s Sportszone, Combos, Mercedes and Texas Tourism contributed to an 87 percent revenue increase over last year’s tournament. Pizza Hut is sponsoring the site’s online Tournament Challenge contest during March Madness.
“For the Olympics, CBS SportsLine was able to bring in Budweiser ads. It was the first major Web sponsorship from a company that’s one of the biggest advertisers in other sports media,” says Patrick Keane, an analyst for Jupiter Communications.
Handicapping the online sports field, Keane comments: “ESPN Sportszone was the first out of the gate on the Web and it’s given them a tremendous advantage. Sports fans are loyal to brand. It’s one reason advertisers want them.” (Nor are sports site visitors likely to be bookmark-flippers; according to Relevant Knowledge, during the Winter Olympics, 76 percent of the visitors to the top four sites only went to one sports site, while just 20 percent visited two different sites during the Nagano games.) In Keane’s estimation, “CBS SportsLine is leveling the playing field.” At their disposal during the NCAA Tournament will be the single most effective promotional medium–television. “Recently we issued a report on sports events showing that mentioning a URL on TV was the top reason for people visiting Web sites,” Keane adds.
Once the dust settles from March Madness, sports fans on the Web won’t be easing into the usual lower-usage days of baseball season. This year features soccer’s quadrennial World Cup, likely to generate record international traffic come summer; Fox has already unveiled its “Road to the World Cup” site, with Puma as a sponsor.