Internet

Home run race draws fans online

As sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa look to beat Roger Maris's record, sports sites are responding with bells and whistles.

Thanks to its popular appeal, Mark McGwire's bid for Major League Baseball's single-season home run mark is becoming another chapter in the story of how online reportage is joining mainstream news coverage.

As McGwire and fellow slugger Sammy Sosa continue on pace to surpass Roger Maris's 1961 total of 61 round-trippers, fans who aren't following St. Louis Cardinals or Chicago Cubs games by conventional means--television or radio--are turning to the Internet. Previously held by Babe Ruth, the home run record has garnered a flurry of media coverage in the final month of baseball's regular season, and the daily pursuit of information has helped call attention to online technologies.

A software application that illustrates game action in a video-game-like environment has jumped 119 percent in popularity on sports site CBS SportsLine, for example. Rival ESPN.com said a similar application has risen to rank among its top 25 pages each day, up from a top 50 ranking.

Live audio feeds that can be received online well outside normal radio range, near-instantaneous reportage via email and the Web, and the user's ability to call up video clips on demand are three more examples of online tools finding favor.

"Anything that really captures imaginations and is well-suited to being covered online, which this [home run record] is, brings new people to the table. It encourages them to sample our service for the first time," said Scott Ehrlich, senior vice president and executive producer of News America Digital Publishing, producers of Fox Sports Online.

All the Net's big-name sports outlets--ESPN, CBS SportsLine, CNNSI, the Sporting News, Fox Sports Online--have responded to the demand for up-to-date information with a bevy of features, profiling the two stars and comparing their progress to Maris's historical season. Updated as necessary, the packages remain "evergreen" and readily available, unlike TV or newsprint treatments.

Meanwhile, fans are exploring newer options. One of the simplest is CNNSI's email alert service, which promises to send instantaneous news of home runs by McGwire or Sosa.

Broadcast.com licenses audio feeds from Major League Baseball and makes every game available via the Web. All that is needed is RealNetworks' RealPlayer streaming media plug-in and speakers connected to the PC. And Fox plans to experiment with integrating its television audio transmissions into its Web coverage.

CBS SportsLine's Baseball Live, which debuted during the 1996 season, has never been so popular--particularly during the daytime. "When they play during the day, traffic surges because guys at their office log on," a spokesman said.

Both Baseball Live, a Macromedia program, and Major League Baseball Gamecast, ESPN's Java alternative, are bandwidth-intensive but also loaded with sophisticated statistical content designed to complement live action. These and other programs further anticipate the delivery of TV transmissions to the PC.

"[Gamecast] got born conceptually while I was watching the 1996 World Series, when I was sitting in my office jumping back and forth between watching the game and flipping to the computer screen," said Geoff Reiss, senior vice president for ESPN Internet Ventures. "I thought it'd be so cool to bring some of that data to a graphical presentation.

"McGwire was one of the best things that could have happened to Gamecast," Reiss added.

Of course, private Netizens are also in on the fun. As they do, newsgroups are buzzing and nonprofessional Web pages are surging in popularity. John Skilton, whose encyclopedic Baseball Links site has amassed some 4,300 Web locations since 1995, recorded three new McGwire pages this month alone.