WEEKLY WEB WATCH: Athletes Direct virtually allows fans to touch their sports idols

Remember that quote from bright young tennis star Anna Kournikova, along the lines of ’topless players are the future of women’s tennis’?

Remember that quote from bright young tennis star Anna Kournikova, along the lines of ’topless players are the future of women’s tennis’?

Remember that quote from bright young tennis star Anna Kournikova,

along the lines of ’topless players are the future of women’s

tennis’?



It was so widely quoted that it must be true, right? Well, not according

to her official Web site (www.kournikova.com). What Anna actually said,

so she tells us on the site, was, ’In 10 years, women’s tennis is gonna

be probably close to what it is now because I think we’re pretty much

ahead. I think that the game itself will be even faster than it is, but

it’s definitely going to be very exciting.’



Which is a lot less exciting than the original misquote, as are her

comments about her rumored romantic involvements: ’I have a lot of

friends, and, if I am going to dinner somewhere or something, it doesn’t

mean right away that I am together with the person.’



But all is not lost. If you’re interested in Anna Kournikova for reasons

other than tennis, click over to the Fan Forum section. That’s where you

get to offer your own opinions and where you’ll find young men taking

the opportunity to say things like ’I want to lick you all over’

(although this particular comment was edited out in the hour between the

two times I browsed the site).



On one level, Kournikova’s Web site is all about this sort of thing.



There’s not a lot about tennis here. Implicit throughout is a

recognition that when it comes to marketing Anna Kournikova, her assets

are definitely more than just her tennis game. It’s all carefully

calculated to keep the adoring fans, well ... more adoring.



Kournikova’s site is hosted by Athletes Direct (www.athletesdirect.com),

as are the sites of nearly 300 other sporting stars, like Martina

Hingis, Troy Aikman and Mia Hamm. Not that they’re all as fluffy as

Kournikova’s.



Try LA Laker Kobe Bryant, for instance (www.kobebryant.com), where you

get a strong sense that what Bryant and his audience want to talk about

is basketball (notwithstanding all the ’Kobe you’re da bomb!’

messages).



Athletes Direct is impressive. The sites look good. The company uses the

strengths of the Web, with live chat (and archives of the

transcriptions), discussion forums, and audio and video, and it succeeds

in giving a sense of access to the athletes that fans wouldn’t find in

any other medium.



Ask your hero a question and he might just answer it. Click around a bit

and you might find a comment on the latest tabloid controversy

surrounding him, if he’s that sort of athlete. Athletes Direct has been

built with PR firmly in mind.



But the sites are not all winners. Take Dennis Rodman, who seems at the

moment to be famous for just about every reason other than his game.

Perhaps that’s why his Athletes Direct site has a neglected air about

it. The last and apparently only time he took the trouble to answer

fans’ questions appears to have been March 7.



If there’s a lesson to be drawn from the Athletes Direct approach, it is

that technology is no substitute for the real involvement of the

athletes.



Build a site that gives people the impression they’re going to be able

to touch a bit of you, and it becomes quite hard to fake that. And the

ones that work, whether the talk is about sports or denying tabloid

rumors, are the ones where the athletes (or their PR advisors) appear to

have taken a genuine interest in the people coming to visit.





- Stovin Hayter is editor-in-chief of Revolution. He can be contacted at

stovin.hayter@revolutionmagazine.com.



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