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Yahoo plays college ball for free

The Web portal signs a deal to create the largest storeroom of free college sports broadcasts on the Net--its latest attempt to move toward a subscription model.

Yahoo on Thursday signed a deal to create the largest storeroom of free college sports broadcasts on the Net--the online portal's latest attempt to hold exclusive content worthy of consumer dollars.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo signed an agreement with Student Advantage and its FANSonly Network to add 3,500 college-event broadcasts to Yahoo's sports channel. Yahoo said the deal gives it the biggest collection of such broadcasts online, with more than 13,000 free live and archived audio and video events for nearly 200 schools. Starting Saturday, out-of-state sports fans can listen to college games at Notre Dame and Oklahoma, among 25 top schools, via Yahoo Sports.

Financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

Through the deal, Yahoo is laying the groundwork for exclusive content and media assets that could entice visitors to pay for access in the future. Under pressure to diversify revenues away from the milk-and-water advertising market, Yahoo has been adding features--some with price tags--in its push to become a valuable destination for online content.

In particular, CEO Terry Semel, a former Warner Bros. co-chairman who joined Yahoo in April, has highlighted the development of paid services as one of his objectives.

"Yahoo is basically looking at paid content as the silver bullet to cure their advertising woes," said Aram Sinnreich, senior analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix, an Internet measurement and analysis company.

To this end, the company has been sharpening its entertainment focus and placing subscription fees on a variety of services. Earlier this year, Yahoo agreed to acquire Launch Media to bolster its music offerings.

Analysts say such efforts are meant to shed outmoded ideas about the company. Sinnreich said that in the minds of consumers, Yahoo two years ago was a search and directory site, or "a pointer to other places on the Net."

"Now Yahoo, in the days of Terry Semel, is attempting to be a destination in its own right," he added. "In order to make this clear to consumers, they need to demonstrate that there's content you can only get at Yahoo. Further down the line they can turn it into the basis for a paid content area."

Indeed, the company is embracing that idea.

"We're continuing with a free strategy in the coming year because we believe that this content is going to be supported well by an advertising model," said Tonya Antonucci, a production director at Yahoo. "In the future, we may decide to take this content and bundle it in a way that (allows us to) charge a subscription for it."

By bundling, Antonucci said the company would add other content and services to make it essential to the "die-hard fan."

The new service will give sports fans access to play-by-play statistics for college football games through its GameChannel application. Fans listening to a Stanford game, for example, could view statistics in real time while they are tuned into the event.

Yahoo airs broadcasts of college football, basketball, baseball and other sporting events. It also streams professional sporting events. Many of the games are available through Broadcast.com, which it acquired in 1999.