WEEKLY WEB WATCH: Pro athletes’ Web sites are not a field of dreams for league execs

Professional sports leagues like the NBA and NFL are banking a lot on the Internet. And mostly, it’s about money. As if the amount they get from TV is not already astonishing enough for mere mortals, they all hope the Web will prove to be a similarly lucrative pot. That much is clear from the deals with various Internet media and access companies, from ESPN.com and CBS Sportsline to ISPs as far afield as the Netherlands and Singapore (in the case of the NFL).

Professional sports leagues like the NBA and NFL are banking a lot on the Internet. And mostly, it’s about money. As if the amount they get from TV is not already astonishing enough for mere mortals, they all hope the Web will prove to be a similarly lucrative pot. That much is clear from the deals with various Internet media and access companies, from ESPN.com and CBS Sportsline to ISPs as far afield as the Netherlands and Singapore (in the case of the NFL).

Professional sports leagues like the NBA and NFL are banking a lot

on the Internet. And mostly, it’s about money. As if the amount they get

from TV is not already astonishing enough for mere mortals, they all

hope the Web will prove to be a similarly lucrative pot. That much is

clear from the deals with various Internet media and access companies,

from ESPN.com and CBS Sportsline to ISPs as far afield as the

Netherlands and Singapore (in the case of the NFL).



The maneuvering taking place between the leagues and various media

companies seems to indicate that they regard the Web as a replay of TV.

And in some ways it is. You have a vast mass of fans hungry for the

drama, action, emotion and heroes of sports. TV is one way of giving it

to them; the Internet is another. But it’s here that the analogy breaks

down. For all that the word ’network’ is applied to television, it is in

fact a tightly controlled, closely mediated gateway. There are few

controllers of access to the medium and to the vast audiences it

commands. And the Internet ... well, it really is a network, and by

definition anybody who has access to it can also publish on it.



Of course, the pro leagues control media access to games and the rights

to transmit those games, and that is their trump card. But you only have

to type the name of your favorite sports hero into a search engine to

see that while some sites are clearly better than others and command

bigger audiences, there is no limit to publishing sports information on

the Internet.



And that may yet come to challenge the plans of the major sports’

governing bodies. That and the superstar players who have come to

dominate American sports and who are also looking to the Internet for,

well, a bit of money, mostly.



When, as long ago as 1996, Shaquille O’Neal awarded Sportsline.com the

right to host his official Web site (www.shaq.com) in return for equity

in the company, it was clear the game had changed. Sportsline shares

might not have been worth real money then, but they could be someday,

and that is money the NBA would like to get. And in the old days it

might well have gone to the NBA.



Fans no longer simply want the drama of the games. They want a taste of

their superstars. They want to follow them off the court as well as

on.



Broadband Sports’ Athletes Direct Division (www.AthletesDirect.com) has

signed up no fewer than 275 athletes like Troy Aikman, Brett Favre, Anna

Kournikova and Kobe Bryant to create their official sites and deliver to

their adoring fans ’access to raw and unedited news and views from the

athletes themselves.’ That’s like having a daily TV show or sports

magazine to yourself, and what’s more, you get to control what is

said.



The Web sites of superstar athletes, if done well, are an element of

media competition that the leagues could have done without online. They

will dilute audiences, divert merchandise sales and weaken the leagues’

position as the mediator of audience access to the excitement of their

sports.



And from the players’ point of view the Internet is, after the

multimillion-dollar ads of sponsors such as Nike, the next-best tool for

fostering the cult of superstardom.



Not that many of them have yet learned how to use the medium - but

that’s next week’s column.



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