Start-up moves in among leading sports sites

Rivals.com doesn't rank among the top 20 Web sites for September but finishes the week of November 7 as the 16th-most-popular in terms of unique users and claims the highest total length of visit.

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A start-up has quickly moved in among the Web's leading sports sites despite lacking brand-name recognition, according to survey data.

Rivals.com, a Watch CNET News.com TV online Seattle-based network of sites developed by sports enthusiasts, finished the week of November 7 as the 16th-most-popular sports site in terms of unique users, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. ESPN, CBS SportsLine and NFL.com led a field of sites mostly produced by major media concerns or well-established pro sports leagues.

The climb is surprising given that Rivals didn't rank among the top 20 for the month of September. October Nielsen/NetRatings data isn't yet available.

Moreover, Rivals claimed the highest aggregate time spent per user at 32.2 minutes, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. Yahoo's fantasy basketball site, 12th in terms of visitors, was the only other site reaching the 30s, while longtime sports leader ESPN claimed the far-slimmer total of 11.8 minutes per user. Lengthy visits, or "stickiness," are much-prized because the longer a user stays, the more ads and e-commerce pitches can be presented.

Rivals' rise seems to confirm that high-profile marketing isn't everything in the sports world. Industry observers typically consider brand highly important to news and information properties, but the category's No. 2 site, SportsLine, also rose from humble beginnings before securing a strategic television partnership with CBS.

"Sports is a very 'viral'-oriented marketing business," said Alan Weiner, vice president of analytical services for Nielsen/NetRatings. "Men will share great discoveries on the Web using email. (They're) likely to cut and paste and send a URL to friends," he said. Viral is an industry term analogous to "word of mouth." Men are by far the predominant users of Web sports sites.

Rivals also has lined up some well-heeled backers, including chipmaking giant Intel, News America Digital Publishing (the parent of FoxSports.com) and venture capital firms Hummer Winblad Venture Partners and The Phoenix Partners. But Rivals doesn't aim to be a news service in the traditional sense.

Aggregating sites devoted to the NFL and NBA franchises and major college teams, it quickly steers users to their favorites, such as the Washington Redskins. The company claims to have nearly 700 writers who provide users with local perspective. Rivals' publishing tool "allows affiliate publishers to retain editorial autonomy," according to its Web site.

Looking at last week's top seven sites--in order, ESPN, CBS SportsLine, NFL.com, NASCAR.com, Yahoo's sports site, CNNSI.com and NBA.com--Rivals has a significant amount of ground to cover. "Men 18 (and over) go to the well-established names they can rely on for news and information," Weiner said.