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August 22, 2005

'Take Me Out To The Web Site,' Say Fans

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When professional sports teams tailored their Web sites to fans using dial-up connections, traffic was lackluster. But when teams began targeting users with broadband, visits and revenues rocketed, according to a recent survey, which also reveals that the growing use of interactive multimedia on PCs and cell phones will likely boost traffic in the future.

"The more you offer, the more they become fans," said Andy McGowan, a lecturer at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. "Now that bigger and faster broadband pipelines are readily available, there are video clips, audio clips, and interviews."

McGowan and a group of 40 researchers at UMass conducted its third survey of 134 major league professional sites and found that baseball had moved up the ladder of fan involvement and interest into the top league position. The survey was conducted with the participation of SportsBusiness Journal.

In an interview, McGowan, a former director of public relations for the National Hockey League, said that broadband has been spurring fan involvement in teams' Web site views. Major League Baseball (MLB) had revenue of about $140 million last year with a $40 million profit, according to media reports

The league itself maintained tight control over its teams' general look-and-feel, but each team developed its own content. The Boston Red Sox, who won the World Series, finished in first place, too, in the categories surveyed by the Isenberg School team. McGowan said the surveyors analyzed content, fan interaction, Web design, and merchandise for sale, with content accounting for slightly more than 50 percent of the overall score.

"There was a significant difference among the five leagues," he said. "There's a difference between what different leagues allow and don't allow. Baseball is controlling. Almost all teams are identical." He noted that major league baseball's generic approach didn't appear to be successful at first, but has found highest acceptance by fans in the most recent league survey. He observed that football and hockey team sites tend to be different, with some very successful sites and others that are less so.

The SportsBusiness Journal indicated that new online activities like blogging and arcade and fantasy games are helping drive fan interest in their teams' Web sites. Major League Baseball Advanced Media took over much of Major League Soccer's Internet operations last year and the soccer league's Web fan involvement quickly climbed.

McGowan believes cell phone activities will be a new engine of growth for online sports fan involvement. Gregg Greene, director of marketing for the Seattle Mariners baseball team, has noted that Verizon Wireless has had initial success in offering trivia, games, voting contests.

McGowan expects additional services to be offered over cell phones and cited Verizon Wireless' V Cast service as a potential vehicle for instant replays, ticket sales, and other team-related activities.

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