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Yahoo plays fantasy sports game

Ramping up efforts to gain customer loyalty in a competitive space, Yahoo will launch a free fantasy football league on its sports channel.

Ramping up efforts to gain customer loyalty in a competitive space, Yahoo today announced a free fantasy football league on its Yahoo Sports channel.

The move is yet another indication that the market for sports-oriented Web sites is one of the fastest-growing areas on the Net.

In related news, two South African companies are joining to launch a new sports site--illustrating the international nature of the online sports phenomenon.

The Yahoo announcement is the fruit of a partnership between the portal giant and Sandbox Entertainment. Sandbox will power the cobranded service, to be hosted on Yahoo Sports beginning September 6. In an attempt to fulfill football fantasies, users of the service can draft, play, trade, cut, and bench real-life NFL football players. Players also can create their own leagues and invite new players to join.

"Fantasy football is all about intense competition and community," Tonya Antonucci, sports producer for Yahoo, said in a statement. "It is a game perfectly suited to this medium."

It's also about making money. Sports sites have successfully used fantasy leagues to attract sports fans, who are known for being particularly passionate. Popular sports services such as ESPN SportsZone, CBS SportsLine, and CNN/SI have developed revenue streams based on both focused advertising and subscription fees. The sites charge per-season fees of $19.95, $19.95, and $14.95, respectively, for every team.

Notably, Yahoo's service is free, underscoring its determination to compete in an already-crowded space.

Fantasy leagues have the added benefit of boosting brand loyalty, and in turn having those dedicated eyeballs consistently return to the site. This helps the site sell specialized advertising geared toward a focused audience, which then adds to the monthly subscription fees that the site charges.

Subscription-based services such as SportsLine's fantasy football league also have added community services to heighten the experience. For example, users can chat online, contribute to message boards, and participate in real-time draft lotteries. The interactive experience in many way has paid off for these sites.

"Fantasy players generally visit our site more than once a day," said Chris Weeks, executive producer of fantasy sports on SportsLine. "We make people want to come back on a daily basis."

However, Yahoo's entry into any space may serve as a warning for established sites. It has the distinct advantage of sitting on a large audience base (usually measured as the largest on the Web), strong brand recognition, plus it is offering the service free.

But in the eyes of the competition, there is value in subscription fees. Andrew Sturner, SportsLine's vice president of business development, said that subscription services provide more dedicated services, statistics, and options for more zealous fantasy players.

"The free products that are in the marketplace are fantastic for the casual sports fan." said Sturner. "In terms of real avid sports enthusiasts, real fantasy players who have been playing in leagues for years, they need all the tools and functionality that we have."

Users who register for Yahoo's fantasy football league will be able to access other Yahoo personalization services such as chat, email, and message boards.

In other sports-Web news, leading South African ISP M-Web and pay TV channel Supersport tomorrow will launch a sports site, showing that big media interests are strengthening their presence in the country's online market.

Supersport Zone will integrate the wire-service reportage found in M-Web's current sports section with "new services that will extend Supersport's [news] magazine programs into interactive communities," according to a statement released by M-Web.

M-Web covers the republic's highest-profile sports--rugby, cricket, soccer, tennis, and golf--as part of an extensive content lineup that also includes news and entertainment sections. The sports section also features rotisserie competitions and links to a sister M-Web division, Computicket. CompuServe Africa is M-Web's third arm.

The new site, which will have its own URL, suggests the company may be moving beyond its strategy of offering content to attract more dial-up users. The combination of M-Web and Supersport content "will allow us to experiment boldly as the PC and the TV begin to converge," Russel Macmillan, M-Web's chief executive, said in a statement.

The tie-up brings together South Africa's second-largest ISP and a pay TV channel that is part of the MIH Holdings, the large premium TV holdings company M-Web was spun from earlier this year. MIH also includes the well-known M-Net. M-Web claims an audience of 50,000 households and a growth rate of 1,000 households weekly.

According to its Web site, the company averaged 3.2 million page views per month from January to March, which would make it the country's most popular destination.

M-Web, which is publicly traded in Johannesburg, lost 70.4 million rand ($11.4 million) in the six months ended March 31.