As Net users' enthusiasm for this Sunday's NFL championship crests, programming differences among the leading sports sites are coming into focus.
Fox Sports, which will broadcast America's most-watched sporting event, hopes to benefit from blending TV programming with Fox Sports Online. Close collaboration between television and the online medium has been a key part of Fox's strategy, especially since its August relaunch.
Elsewhere, the Sporting News and CNN/SI will rely on established bases of knowledgeable sports fans, while CBS SportsLine will lean on high-profile marketing agreements with CBS and also America Online to grow its audience.
Coming off a strong ratings performance this fall, front-running ESPN.com says it is looking to continue experimenting with new ways to cover high-profile sporting events that are well-reported by traditional media.
To be sure, all the Net's top sports sites are chock-a-block with hourly reportage, pregame analysis by former pros and respected commentators, and interactive entertainment such as CNN/SI's Shockwave-based field goal-kicking game.
The volume of information and statistics alone demonstrates that the days of fan sites keeping up with professionally produced pages are long gone. At the Sporting News, for instance, reporters covering the Super Bowl or any other event have all the company's media in mind.
"One assignment or another may have a focus, but everyone goes out with all of the platforms in mind," said Barry Reeves, online managing editor of the Sporting News.
The same is largely true for CNN/SI, according to managing editor Steve Robinson.
Everything the Sporting News and CNN/SI post online is free--although not everything that appears in print or on TV is posted online--whereas ESPN and CBS SportsLine both carry premium content online, notably columns by high-profile writers.
"You don't have to pay to read [Sports Illustrated reporter] Peter King," Robinson said. "Our strength...reflects what the two organizations that comprise CNN/SI are all about, which is solid journalism."
SportsLine too is counting on its reporting services, albeit in a different manner.
In addition to producing its own branded content, flagship property CBS SportsLine provides news feeds to AOL's Sports Channel in exchange for promotional opportunities and also the ability to market logo merchandise to users of the largest online service. Like its agreement with CBS, the deal brings a sense of legitimacy and is intended to drive traffic to the young Florida-based company, which has become the second-biggest sports site.
Naturally, exposure increases during events like the Super Bowl, and SportsLine executives hope new users will develop brand loyalties.
Benefiting from a unique advantage--television access--Fox Sports Online will carry some exclusive audio feeds and also Webcast the Super Bowl's always glitzy halftime show, designating former NFLers Jackie Slater and Ronnie Lott as well as TV personality Keith Olbermann as hosts.
In all, some 25 former pros and other broadcast figures will contribute to the Web site, according to Fox. Some, like renowned commentator John Madden, have been contributing to the site throughout the NFL season.
Top sports sites require "digital programming combined with the power of broadcast vehicles and the talent to do analysis," Scott Ehrlich, Fox Sports Online's senior vice president and executive producer, previously told CNET News.com.
But Geoff Reiss, senior vice president of production and programming for ESPN, doesn't see consider TV and the Web so closely intertwined yet. "I'm interested in continuing to figure out how to take advantage of the unique qualities of the [online] medium," he said.
Like all its rivals, ESPN has staff in Miami, but Reiss said he recently told reporters that "I'm not going to keep sending you to events if all you do is keep writing stories that look like wire [accounts]."
The approach seems to be working: ESPN enjoyed a spectacular autumn, increasing its combined home and work audience by 19 percent to nearly 5.9 million users, greater than the total of its three closest rivals, according to Media Metrix.
One of the site's most popular features was a reporter's notebook on the experience of trying to scalp tickets to St. Louis Cardinals games during Mark McGwire's quest to break Roger Maris's single-season home run record. "That gave fans who were thinking about doing the same thing a sense of, 'Could I get in?'" Reiss observed.
On the other hand, when sister Disney company ABC broadcast the Fiesta Bowl earlier this month, ESPN trumpeted a push package of game statistics along with an interactive play-calling strategy game, intended to be viewed alongside the TV broadcast. Although the package had previewed during late-season Monday Night Football telecasts, it was jammed virtually from the game's start, and many frustrated users couldn't log on.
Lycos, which last month won the right to produce the officially sanctioned SuperBowl.com, is prepared to accommodate about 100,000 strategy game users, according to Jim Hoenscheid, director of brand marketing and promotions at Lycos.
Hoenscheid also anticipates four bulletin-board postings per minute during the game. But SuperBowl.com (as well as CNN/SI and the Sporting News) expects the biggest spike in traffic after the game and even the next day, as sports fans search for more perspective.
"More traffic actually comes the day after the Super Bowl, after it's happened," said Hoenscheid. "In the past there hasn't been an application to actually log on to and use."
Lycos estimated the official site will wind up with about 30 million page views during a roughly one-month period.
Fox expects its biggest crush before the game or when there's a break in the action; ESPN agrees game time is prime time.
That seems to give Fox an edge. "Whoever owns broadcast rights will have the ability to drive traffic," noted Jupiter Communications analyst Patrick Keane.
But as media elements converge, the line between reportage and promotion becomes blurred, adding another distinguishing feature to online sports coverage.
ESPN produces NFL.com, but in awarding the "spin-off" SuperBowl.com property, the league shied from its established partner because ABC directly competes with Fox. Fox chose not to bid on SuperBowl.com.
Keane thinks the most interesting development of all is Lycos's becoming the first online company to produce official event site. "The people who have traditionally bought this have been broadcasters or Microsoft or IBM," he said.
That puts SuperBowl.com in competition with Fox and the rest for traffic, though ironically the page looks like Fox Sports Online and carries branded links to both Fox and the NFL site.