The cross-marketing agreement underscores Microsoft's ongoing attempts to partner with media companies by offering them technology in return for distribution. Microsoft executives have dismissed ideas of creating content and instead touted ways their technology can deliver content online.
"MSN is not in direct competition with media companies," said Sarah Lefko, an MSN product manager. "We're able to offer them technology and great consumer services for them, while they can focus on their content."
Nevertheless, Microsoft's courtship of media partners is seen as a direct attack against AOL Time Warner, causing many competitive concerns in the industry. Meanwhile, AOL Time Warner has backed technologies for delivering Web content that compete with Microsoft's. Thursday's deal could deepen those fault lines.
With the cross-marketing agreement, the MSN brand and links to its services--such as Hotmail, search, chat and shopping--will span the top of ESPN's main pages. Eventually, ESPN will also incorporate Microsoft's Windows Media technology into its video streaming feeds and support Microsoft's authentication service, Passport. ESPN currently supports rival streaming technology from RealNetworks for its multimedia feeds.
In return, MSN will exclusively carry ESPN content on its sports channel and offer preferred placement on its home page.
MSN's Lefko said the deal could serve as a model for future partnerships with media companies' online efforts: See your content on MSN, and distribute MSN's Web services in return.
In a sense, MSN's arrangement with ESPN mirrors similar moves by AOL Time Warner. Since the merger of America Online and Time Warner, the New York-based company has placed a common Netscape toolbar on the headers of sites in its network, including CNN.com, Time.com and WarnerBros.com. The aim is to keep Web surfers under AOL Time Warner's umbrella of online services.