Do you know the No. 1 sports event for online sports fans? Nope, not the Super Bowl. Not the World Series.
March Madness - or, for the uninitiated, the NCAA college basketball tournament.
And that presents something of a challenge for thin-as-a-wafer online sports staffs. How do you cover 64 college teams with the depth and tenacity demanded by hoops-crazed Net denizens?
For more than 100 online newspapers, the solution has been to leverage the print paper's sports staff, use the wire services - and sign up with The Sports Network, an outfit in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, that you've almost certainly never heard of.
Peek under the hood of an online news site and you'll likely find a handful of third-party vendors. But few have as compelling a story as The Sports Network, founded 22 years ago as an audiotext service for newspapers. Somewhat remarkably, the Net - and the thirst of online users for instantaneous information - has helped transform this small company into a news service with a global reach.
"As a full-service international wire service, we are the quickest, fastest provider of sports data around," says Ken Zajac, director of sales, "but first and foremost, we emphasize accuracy."
The Sports Network's compelling one-two punch is this: They provide real-time scores and updates for the Big Four sports: pro football, baseball, basketball and hockey, plus extensive coverage of college basketball and football. And they provide a wealth of previews, game recaps and statistical data that will sate the thirst of the most trivia-minded fan, often in association with a partner, Fantasy Sports Services.
Clients include Tribune, Knight Ridder, Cox, Fox Sports, the Irish Times and the major online newspapers in New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Dallas, Boston, Detroit, Seattle, Toronto and Vancouver.
"When I was perusing the Web six or seven years ago, I noticed that a lot of the papers had static, 2-day-old information. None of it was real-time," Zajac says. "That wasn't going to fly on the Web. So we stepped in to provide dynamic scores and information that created turnover in page views and return traffic, which is vital to any ad-driven site."
Today, Zajac says, the company's appeal is a variation on that same theme. "Now it's a matter of providing totality of sports coverage. The last thing you want to do is redirect your readers to another site, like ESPN or SportsLine, for the information they could find on your site. By not having to worry about updates of regional and national sports news, editors and writers can concentrate on their own back yard."
Todd Engdahl, editor of DenverPost.com, echoes that view. "The most important benefit for us is that they enable us to offer sports stats and content that would be very difficult to offer ourselves or to repurpose from print," he says. "Outsourcing has always been a key strategy for us, and sports stats and updates are good candidates for that. Given the volume, the daily changes, the organizational difficulties - that presents a nightmare, unless you're a giant Web site like washingtonpost.com. We've been a client of The Sports Network from early on, and it's been a perfect solution for us."
Engdahl heads a five-person Web editorial staff, with only one editor handling sports news for a market that includes football's Denver Broncos, basketball's Denver Nuggets, baseball's Colorado Rockies and hockey's Colorado Avalanche.
"I think most of our sports readers at a minimum are going to expect to see what they get in print: box scores, game summaries, pitching lineups for the next day," he says. "There's also a certain segment of the sports readership that wants deeper statistical content, and with The Sports Network and Forecaster (from Fantasy Sports Services), we've got all of that, plus something we can't offer in print: updates of games as they are played."
Engdahl thinks "the quality of the feeds stacks up with what we get from the professional sports news services," and notes that The Sports Network's game summaries often post before similar stories from the Associated Press.
Some 660 miles to the southeast, the folks running The Dallas Morning News arrived at a similar outsourcing solution.
Jim Thompson, assistant editor for Dallas Websites - a 40-person operation that encompasses dallasnews.com, WFAA.com (the ABC affiliate), TXCN.com (Texas Cable News) and GuideLive.com - says sports is huge in Cowboys Country. "The Cowboys are our bread and butter, but the Mavericks, Stars and Rangers all generate great traffic," he says.
DallasNews.com has a combined news and sports staff of about 15 people, Thompson estimates, with no editors devoted exclusively to sports. So the Dallas sites use The Sports Network to supplement the editorial staff's original coverage.
"For local sports, we have it covered from top to bottom," Thompson says. "We rely on The Sports Network for national sports news and for live scoring updates of local pro teams and in-depth stats and previews for showcase events like the Super Bowl and March Madness. They take some of the grunt work away from our staff by providing game updates, box scores and other content that users have come to expect."
Equal footing in the press box
Here's how they do it: With slightly more than 100 staffers, The Sports Network relies on a network of 350 to 500 stringers, depending on the season. As credentialed journalists, they sit in the press box and call in to headquarters 30 to 45 minutes before game time to report any late-breaking news, injuries, starting lineups and pitchers, call-ups or transactions. During the game they call in to provide updates, and a battery of seasoned operators convert the information into templated data that goes live on the Web.
In addition to game updates, staffers also create special packages that client sites often use intact. "The biggest event online for us historically has been March Madness, which generates an unbelievable amount of excitement and interest," Zajac says. "We also put together packages for the Super Bowl, the NFL and NBA drafts, the Olympics and World Cup, the World Series, the NBA and NHL championship runs, the college bowl games, the four golf majors, the grand slam events in tennis, the Triple Crown and Breeders Cup, the Indy 500 and Daytona 500."
The Sports Network's goal is to become a one-stop shop for any newspaper or sports site, and so they've teamed with Fantasy Sports Services, a 20-person company co-owned by the Toronto Star. The Toronto-based business's clients include the Detroit News, Denver Post, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Minneapolis Star Tribune and broadcast outlets in Canada. A month ago it inked a deal with Tribune Interactive.
A few clients, such as the Columbus Dispatch, signed up for the company's fantasy sports contests, but most online news sites are more interested in broadening their sports coverage. Fantasy Sports Services' Forecaster includes a rich database of current and historical stats, information and bios for more than 2,000 NFL players, 1,400 baseball players, 1,200 NHL players, 500 NBA pros and 125 golfers on the PGA tour. It also includes a Who's Hot, Who's Cold, Players on the Rise, Rookie Report, team depth charts and more. Users can sign up for a free e-mail newsletter on events such as yesterday's NHL trade deadline.
DenverPost.com is among the sites that signed on for deeper coverage. "You can find every statistic about Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy all the way back to when he played junior hockey," Engdahl says. "So for real sports nuts, it's a dream." (Alas, they need to be patient fanatics, because some pages take an exceedingly long time to load.)
Dan Curtis, the company's director of sales, notes that the fantasy games can be extended to non-sporting events such as Sunday night's Academy Awards, letting users predict winners in each category, or a stock market game that lets users create fantasy portfolios (presumably, playing the fantasy version is less painful than the real thing).
Growing pains and expansion plans
Too much can be made of third party vendors' contributions to news sites. After all, the secret to success on the Web is differentiation - unique local content - not sameness. But how do you free up the resources to get there? By covering the basics - and immediacy and depth are keys in the online medium.
For smaller sites in particular, this helps level the national playing field. It's interesting that you can get the same NBA scores coverage whether you turn to The New York Times or the Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Georgia.
The Sports Network isn't the only player in this space. Among their Web competitors are SportsTicker, a subsidiary of ESPN, which provides scores for USA Today, America Online, Yahoo!, SportsLine, CNNSI, Fox Sports, MSNBC, Excite, Lycos and the ESPN network. STATS Inc., with 500 reporters in the field, provides box scores to hundreds of print newspapers and statistical information for several sports broadcast networks, though its online efforts seem limited to providing game statistics for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Zajac says The Sports Network doesn't consider STATS a direct competitor because they're a statisticians bureau, not a wire service. And they don't consider the sports departments of AP, Reuters or UPI competitors because, while they overlap in such areas as game recaps, previews, schedules and standings, "they're not in the business of providing real-time updates."
The company also fills in the gaps that the major wire services sometimes miss in coverage of second-tier sports, such as soccer, tennis, golf tournaments and auto racing. And they're making money, too. The company's president was quoted as calling The Sports Network "extraordinarily profitable."
To be sure, The Sports Network has had its share of stumbles. Some of the writing in its previews and summaries seems hurried and uneven.
But the company seems to be focused, forward-looking and gaining traction. It plans to launch a subscriber-based instant messaging service April 1 for customized real-time sports results sent to handheld devices. "We think the wireless arena has unlimited potential, and we need to be in that arena," Zajac says.