Digital sports media shifting distribution landscape

By Ken Kerschbaumer

Who controls the power in digital media? The leagues, the teams or the networks? With the NFL Network deciding to launch its own Internet division that question is of more importance than ever and was the focus of a panel at the Sports Business Journal Sports Media & Technology conference.

When you re NFL and put the NFL shield on your site it has to be first rate, said David Katz, heads of yahoo! Sports and Yahoo! Studios. The one thing I hope this creates is an opportunity for a company like Yahoo in a world where distribution air their own games they would rely on others to help push people to their sites.

Yahoo! Has already been doing that by helping stream NFL Sunday Ticket overseas. We helped push their brand and hopeful there are new pockets of opportunity with the NFL, added Katz.

Larry Kramer, CBS advisor, interactive ventures, said there is a long-term concern over what will drive young people to the NFL.com site as they no longer have access to NFL content on sites like Sportsline.com, ESPN.com and FoxSports.com. The ability to promote NFL games on CBS is limited and the affiliates, who were big promotion machines for the NFL, won t be there, he said.

For now Sportsline turns its attention to improving the quality of its own service and working with its streaming partner MLB.com. MLB.com has become a technology company, he said. It s not just about baseball pointing to the work MLB.com and CBS did on March Madness last spring.

[Last spring] we were able to bring a huge number of people online at the exact same time advertisers were starting to embrace video advertising, said Kramer. And that was a watershed moment as for the Internet being an outlet.

Katz says the key is turning something like the up tick during March Madness and make it a year-round business with consistent traffic. Social networking and user-generated content and giving them users to express themselves is a critical aspect to what we re doing, he said. We have a lot of the social networking tools elsewhere in the company and its up to us to bring them in and use them for sports.

Fantasy, added Katz, is the jumping off point and you ll see new tools to help fans share and connect.
Kramer also sees other services like interactive games, rating people, and communicating on a social networking site. All of us are learning that the Web is its own programming world, he explained. And the value of it exists mostly in its interactivity.

Jeff Price, president of SI Digital, says the launch of “My SI” was an epiphany where it learned you couldn t control the consumer. The easier you make it for them to get access to what is most important you have an opportunity to win, he said. And if we drive traffic to Larry [and Sportsline] we re fine with that because we new fans would go there anyway.

As for monetizing community services Katz said one way to get a community started is to seed with the right topics. Message boards are great but they re only as good as the passion of the people who start the thread, he said. And we ve been able to bring in a lot of well-respected writers.

By moving beyond AP wires and adding voice and personality and having them break stories gives Yahoo! Sports more credibility. If you take that with the tools we have for our team pages and then the people who play fantasy sports and give them more hooks into each other. Topping that list is Fantasy Football Live that each Sunday dives into who is hurt, what the weather is and offers live chat sessions. You need to figure out what the sports user wants and integrate that into the site, said Katz. Fantasy Football Live is a move in that direction.

The use of video and new Web technology can keep people in front of a screen for an entire Sunday, he said.

Price, however, said SI.com is trying to not only go from a top-down editorial voice. We re not going to be able to recreate MySpace for sports, he said. It s a bottom-up strategy where we have to connect many of the smaller MySpaces out there. Two million people, for example, voted on a question posed on the site to determine which local site is the best.

Katz said the challenge is to have the people who exist in those smaller communities, like Yahoo! Groups, into a larger environment.

But there s a bigger challenge outlined by Katz. As the leagues like the NFL begin to launch their own services it is becoming increasingly difficult for online services to find their way into locker rooms and press conferences. I would hope that ultimately the league realizes it s good for us to turn on the firehose of promotion because we can help drive ratings and I hope the combination of helping us drive TV ratings in exchange for better access is something I hope changes, he said.

As for Mobile ESPN s failure Kramer said ESPN is doing the right thing now but that thoughts that sports would dominate the consumer buying decision was crazy from the beginning. The quick pace of change in the mobile phone market requires you to have deep pockets to do the R&D work you need to keep pace, he said. But I give ESPN points for trying it and putting out a slick product. But if you re a media company you need to be careful before competing in [the mobile phone] industry.

Price said that working with a carrier much more closely where the phone company handles the phone side and the content provider handles the content side. Added Katz, At the end of the day I don t know how close people wanted that ESPN brand with them wherever they went.

So who owns the power in the digital age? At the end of the day it’s the consumer as they take advantage of the Web to find the content they want when the want it. More importantly, they don’t care who the provider is: only that they get it. So as leagues and teams grapple with revenue models, sharing content, and even linking to each other the message is becoming clear: play nice.