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ESPN: Stay tuned for Fantasy Baseball's return

Fans of ESPN's subscription-based Fantasy Baseball site, who have been sitting on the bench since Sunday because of an outage, should be back in the game by late today, the company says.

Fans of ESPN's subscription-based Fantasy Baseball site, who have been sitting on the bench since Sunday because of an outage, should be back in the game by late today, according to the company.

As reported yesterday, the baseball section of ESPN's Fantasy Games has been down, cutting off thousands of subscribers to the service, which is part of Walt Disney's Go Network and costs $19.95 to $29.95 per season.

"This can only be categorized as a system failure," Geoff Reiss, senior vice president of programming and production for ESPN Internet Ventures, said today. "We've never had [an outage] of this significance that affected this many users."

The Fantasy Baseball area is scheduled to be back online no later than 9 p.m. PT today, he added.

ESPN wouldn't reveal its Fantasy Baseball subscription numbers, but as of fall 1998, ESPN's entire Fantasy Games site, which allows customers to pretend they are the owners or managers of professional teams, had sold more than 260,000 premium-tier memberships.

Initially, ESPN had indicated to users that part of the outage was planned for routine maintenance such as a database upgrade. But today Reiss said that for the most part the site was down because of unforeseen technical problems, which he wouldn't describe in detail.

Some members of Fantasy Baseball, which has been live since March 1996, say they weren't warned about any maintenance period, and that they had no idea when the site was going to be revived.

"Thirty bucks over the course of a five-month season is not a big deal, but it burns me that they're not accountable to their subscribers when they do go down," said Michael DiLorenzo, a longtime ESPN Fantasy Games subscriber.

DiLorenzo said he was sent an email from ESPN in response to his complaints that stated: "We have experienced problems of late, some out of our control, some within, which have rendered the site inaccessible. Problems out of our control include multiple power outages in our area recently, related to changes in our building's infrastructure. These, coupled with a recent database shift-upgrade, have left [Fantasy League Baseball] in its current, temporary state of 'technical flux.'"

ESPN said it plans to compensate members in some way.

"Will be communicating to users in the next 24 hours or so what kind of amends we plan on making," Reiss said. "It's almost impossible to convey to our users how hard we are working to right this situation, and how we take this to heart as a personal failure."

This isn't the first time Disney's online customers have suffered from a glitch. Last year, for example, some customers of Disney's Daily Blast, the popular subscription-based online service for children, got billed twice because of a technical error.

When consumers pay for online content they tend to be less forgiving than they are when a free site goes down.

Online auctioneer eBay knows this better than anyone. The site has been out of commission three times in less than a month.

In June, eBay's stock plunged after a nearly 22-hour service outage, which resulted in the company waiving several million dollars in listing fees. The June service interruption alone will reduce eBay's revenues by $3 million to $5 million this quarter, the company said.

In ESPN's case, timing may ease some of its pains. The professional baseball season is on hiatus this week because of the All-Star Game. But Fantasy subscribers are worried the site will continue to be inconsistent in the future.

"It's convenient that it's going on during the major league All-Star break," DiLorenzo said. "When I log into Fantasy sports in the morning, I expect that results from the previous night will be incorporated, [but sometimes they aren't]."

Still, a Disney spokesperson said that Disney sites suffer outages "extremely infrequently."

News.com's Courtney Macavinta contributed to this report.