With the ongoing convergence of cable programming and the
Internet, both national and regional sports networks are creating unique -- and, in some
cases, lucrative -- synergies between the two mediums in an effort to enhance subscribers'
Once solely used as a means to list programming schedules,
the Web sites of sports networks such as CNN/SI, ESPN and Fox Sports Net are beginning to
tie in their respective on-air programming with Internet-specific content, such as
extensive interviews and polls, to extend the brand beyond cable.
Such seamless efforts provide users with the opportunity to
expose the brand to both cable viewers and Internet users.
"We try to leverage our assets and create
opportunities to provide seamless sports information between the network, [Sports
Illustrated] magazine and the Internet," CNN/SI president Jim Walton said.
"If we have a poll on Baseball Tonight, you're
encouraged to go the Internet to take part in the poll," ESPN executive vice
president of programming Dick Glover said. "If you're on the Internet and you see the
poll, you're encouraged to go the programming on ESPN that the poll relates to. Each part
enhances the other to provide a better experience for the sports fan."
Fox Sports Net takes the concept further by linking Web
sites from its 22 regional sports networks to its foxsports.com site. Users
inputting their ZIP codes are immediately linked to their respective regional sports
"You don't have to just view the national events and
programming -- we put up all of the programming listings and services for all of the
regionals, including the Rainbow [Sports Holdings] networks," Fox Sports vice
president of marketing Kurt Schneider said.
"It further endears the subscriber to the network, and
it's a wonderful extension of the brand," he added. "Anytime you have a
brand-new vehicle out there to get your message across, it's fantastic."
The creation of content- and interactive-heavy sports Web
sites is imperative for the networks as the rollout of high-speed cable modems increases.
As the cable and Internet technologies converge, industry
observers believe it's important for networks in general -- and for strong-branded sports
networks in particular -- to provide compelling Internet content not only to extend the
brand, but also to help sell cable modems into the home.
"Right now, for the sports networks, it's critically
important to establish a beachhead on the Internet, with high-speed Internet access only a
stone's throw away from providing high-quality streaming video," Paul Kagan
Associates Inc. analyst John Mansell said.
"The more compelling the Internet becomes for the
consumer, the more demand for high-speed access for the product develops, which bodes well
for the operator," Glover said. "Just as new programming drives the distribution
of cable boxes, innovative Internet programming will drive the penetration of high-speed
For now, most Internet content consists of pictures and
text. But a few networks are already offering video streaming of their programming.
The Golf Channel's online service (www.thegolfchannel.com) offers both video
and audio streaming of the network's popular half-hour daily-golf-news show, Golf
Central, which runs simultaneously with the network's telecast, Golf senior director
of public relations Debra Sweeney said.
"If they miss the show [on the channel], they can
actually see the show on our Web site because it's archived for 24 hours," she added.
The network also provides audio streaming for its weekly Golf
Talk Live shows. "When Tiger Woods is with us on the show, people who don't have
The Golf Channel can still listen to the interview live," Sweeney said.
The options have made the site very popular with golf
enthusiasts: At least 50 percent of site users come in at least once a week. "It
creates a sense of community for us, sort of a 19th-hole chat. Users can submit
a question for the likes of Jack Nickalus or Arnold Palmer and have them actually respond.
It creates an interactive format that supplements the channel's programs," Sweeney
CNN/SI will often stream live press conferences carried on
the network to allow nonsubscribers to keep up with the latest news, Walton said.
But while the network brand is bringing users to the
Internet, executives said, it's hard to quantify how much effect the sites are having on
For SportsChannel Florida, however, the Internet has at
least spurred more interest in its Florida Panthers National Hockey League telecasts this
The network offered users of its site (www.sportschannelflorida.com) an
opportunity to input questions to its Panthers announcers, which were often read on-air
during the game.
The option was so popular with fans that it helped to
increase Panthers ratings by a whopping 57 percent, according to the network.
"The team has the same number of wins this season than
it had [during the 1997-98 season], so it wasn't the performance of the team that
increased the ratings," SC Florida manager of affiliate relations and marketing John
Stillson said. "The Internet has provided fans with a greater attachment to the
games, which has already had an effect on the viewership of the games."
Of course, most executives said they hope the Internet will
eventually provide an opportunity to generate ancillary revenues from advertising,
sponsorship and other e-commerce opportunities.
ESPN's popular site is already generating revenues for the
sports network, although network executives would not reveal specific figures.
ESPN derives online income from a number of sources,
including subscription fees; transactional revenue from online services such as popular
fantasy games; advertising revenue from different areas of the site; and licensing revenue
from the leagues.
While the numbers are consistently increasing, Glover
maintained that it's still a drop in the bucket compared with revenues generated from
"More important for us, it's a rapidly expanding
opportunity," Glover said. "Clearly, the Internet -- with its ability to deliver
sports news and information, as well as e-commerce opportunities -- is and of itself a
business. There's no question that the Internet is capable of being a stand-alone
distribution system, much like cable."
On a smaller scale, Sunshine Network views its Web site as
a money-making venture, generating advertising and sponsorship revenue for its many areas,
Sunshine general manager Jim Liberatore said.
"Our [Web-related] profit could be upward of $100,000
to $300,000, but hopefully, we'll also drive up the ratings from our fans," he added.
Along with offering statistics, network schedules and team
reports, the site (www.sunshine.com) also
includes areas such as an annual college-basketball pool that can generate revenue.
Further, by offering sponsorships for these ancillary
services -- a local health-care provider sponsored the college-basketball-pool area --
Sunshine can derive more incremental revenue from the Web.
Eventually, Liberatore wants to create a "virtual
mall" on its site to offer sports-related merchandise on the Web. The mall will be
comprised of products sold by companies buying infomercial time on the network. When a
company buys time on the network, it will also have to agree to offer its wares within the
Such appealing services on the Internet also allow Sunshine
to develop attractive advertising packages that combine both network and Internet
"What we offer advertisers is a television package
that goes beyond the network and the Web site," he said.
CNN/SI -- which has corralled DaimlerChrysler's Dodge
division to sponsor its Insider Reports on both its Web site and cable network --
also believes there are tremendous opportunities to cross-promote and sell services
between the media, Walton said.
Mansell added that opportunities to generate revenues from
the Internet will only increase as high-speed modems allow for more Internet video and
other lucrative applications.