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Sports Illustrated lends name to women's site

Taking its cue from an offline giant, CNNSI.com next week launches a branded women's sports site in an attempt to fill one of the Net's content voids.

Taking its cue from an offline giant, CNNSI.com next week will launch a branded women's sports site in an attempt to fill one of the Net's content voids.

The new site, SIforwomen.com, will build on Sports Illustrated's upcoming quarterly for women athletes and women's professional sports, to be called Sports Illustrated for Women. Now in beta, the site will incorporate both material created for the magazine and original content, according to Jon Scher, the New York-based editor of CNNSI.com.

But despite obvious advantages--CNNSI.com is the third-most popular sports site, and Sports Illustrated is possibly the country's most famous sports weekly--SIforwomen.com's success is far from assured. Although they are growing, women's college and pro competitions remain relatively small commercial properties, and as such there has been little incentive to tap the Web, observers say.

That fact isn't lost on the site's creators, who are planning to launch during one of the year's high points: the NCAA women's basketball tournament. "We didn't go into this with the idea of capturing audience [from other people]," Scher said. "We saw a deep market that hasn't been served by anyone else."

Both CNNSI.com and No. 2 CBS SportsLine already offer full-fledged women's sports sections, typically covering women's college and professional basketball, tennis, golf, soccer, and other events that periodically flash onto the radar screen. Not surprisingly, both departments take a back seat to the more voluminous and lucrative world of men's athletics.

WNBA.com, a Starwave production on behalf of the NBA-backed women's pro hoops league, may be the best-known site of its kind, but it's a single-sport effort. Elsewhere, news service Just Sports for Women and the four-year-old WWW Women's Sports Page, an aggregator, are among the leading broad-based pages.

It's no surprise that there aren't more top-class sites, according to Women.com's Dana McDowell, a former SportsLine USA sales executive. One reason is that historically there weren't many women online. Another is that women's sports franchises aren't as attractive to commercial sponsors as men's sports are.

But that is changing. A study by research firm International Data Corporation released in December 1998 predicted that the demographics of Web users will change dramatically in 1999. Notably, it said the gender gap will for the first time favor women, who will surpass the 50 percent mark in the total Netizen population.

"It's a function of having to have bigger growth in women's sports and in users. It's demand," she said. "As any [commercially run] site will tell you, it's all about making your numbers."

Major women's sports magazines such as Conde Nast Sports for Women are geared toward participation, fitness, and nutrition, McDowell added.

Acknowledging that, Scher said that SIforwomen.com's content will cover these topics while trying to create a sense of community through message boards. Christine Lilley and Dr. Dot Richardson, U.S. Olympic gold medal winners in soccer and softball, respectively, also will field questions in a "mailbag" feature.

But the impetus comes from Sports Illustrated's new title, which will have a circulation of about 450,000. "We're taking what we've learned about SI and applying it to a different audience," Scher said.

Sports Illustrated for Women and SIforwomen.com also will be pitched together in sales packages.

"I definitely think it will help," McDowell said. "I just think there's other [women's] content more in demand."