First and Web

Broadcast networks look to enhance NFL viewing experience with more elaborate and complex Internet experiences
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Will the real National Football League fan please stand up? On one hand, there's the fan who believes in clogging arteries, chugging beer and chomping cigars while wearing a hard-hat because it looks great with a shirtless belly painted green and gold.

But with the efforts being made by Web sites like Sportsline.com, ESPN.com, FoxSports.com and the NFL.com, a laptop and a PDA might need to be added to the stereotype. It's time to introduce the nouveau fan.

"We work very closely with our colleagues at the FOX Sports television network, and once the NFL season starts, Sunday is our most popular, heavily trafficked day of the week," says Danny Greenberg, senior vice president, FoxSports.com. "First, the NFL is the most popular sport out there, but we also promote a lot of good features during the game so they can use the Web site while watching the games."

It has been Generations X and Y that have received the most credit for "multitasking" and watching TV while surfing the Web, but with game-day traffic sometimes jumping 25% to 50% over usual traffic, the average football fan is getting a reputation. As a result, there are a number of new complex features being introduced by the sites to help drive and hold traffic.

For example, FoxSports.com has a Predict a Play game that made its debut during last year's AFC playoffs and will now be an every-week and every-game feature. The game allows fans to predict what the next play will be, racking up points for correct guesses. The experiment during last season's AFC championship game offered the mind-blowing average viewership of 72 minutes. That number eclipses the average monthly viewing of some Web sites, let alone the average for a Sunday afternoon. Adds Greenberg, "The great thing about it is you have to watch the television broadcast to play, so it's the perfect complement to the on-air content."

Games related to the NFL contests are big driving points of the sites. Along with games like Predict a Play is the more "traditional" fantasy-football game that allows viewers to choose players and field a team that competes with other teams. Greenberg says that, last year, the number of teams that signed up on FoxSports.com exceeded 200,000, and he expects more this year. All the sites are offering their own fantasy-football products, with some free and some costing around $20.

Sportsline last year charged $19.95 for its fantasy game, but this year has forsaken the monetary charge in the interest of bringing in more players. "We thought we could be more successful in terms of monetizing it with advertising and also in building up our database for database marketing," says Joe Ferreira, Sportsline vice president of programming. "It was successful last year, but there are so many free games out there, so we felt ours was superior, and by making it free, we could take over the market."

FoxSports.com also has free fantasy games, but it's also offering a pay game called FOX Fantasy Football. "It's really a premium game for the serious player," says Greenberg. "It's not for everybody, because it isn't a low-involvement game."

While the games related to the games are an attraction, the thing most fans want is simple: the games. NFL games, that is, and related information. CBS and FOX Sports may hold the majority of the cards when it comes to TV coverage, but ESPN spends its Sunday mornings gearing fans up for the day ahead with NFL Game Day and then bringing them down at the end of the day with NFL Primetime. For ESPN.com Editorial Director John Marvel, the goal is simple: make sure ESPN's editorial reputation for newsgathering exhibited on Sportscenter translates to the Internet.

"The personalities are as good as the information they provide, and Chris Mortensen and John Clayton are the premier guys in sports journalism as far as the NFL, and we have them both," he says. "So that's a huge advantage from a news-and-information standpoint."

One feature across all the sites are the Gamecast-like content that keeps site visitors up to date on play-by-play action and stats. ESPN was the pioneer in this space, with its Gamecast feature tied into computers at the stadiums to provide real-time play-by-play. "We want to drive traffic to our NFL coverage, and that's why we cross-promote and tell them to log onto ESPN.com for the games," adds Marvel. "Sundays and Mondays are both huge, and it starts in the morning. People are looking for game information."

Web-site traffic may jump on Sundays and Mondays, but so does traffic at sports bars as fans try to catch as much action as they can. Putting on Webcasts of the broadcasts would be a huge boon to viewers, but, given the $17.5 billion the networks paid for TV rights through the 2005 season, it's something the NFL isn't interested in allowing-yet.

The NFL.com site is, however, offering audio Webcasts for nearly all the games this season, as well as highlights and other video content put together by NFL Films. "We're encouraging fans to watch the games on TV and, if they want, check out a few minutes of a radio broadcast or check out some stats," he explains. "But we don't want to take fans away from the TV broadcast."

Taking viewers away from the TV seems to be the major issue with offering video Webcasts here in the U.S., but there's no doubt the NFL is educating itself on distribution via broadband or the Internet. The NFL last year experimented with broadband distribution of games overseas in Singapore and Amsterdam on a closed-circuit system. It will do the same this year as well, with final details still to be ironed out. But Russo expects the experiment to be expanded to other cities.

"Near term, we're broadcasting our games on network television, because it's the best way to provide fans with a great experience," says Chris Russo, NFL senior vice president, new media. "For the moment, new media is a complement, and, down the road, all of the distribution platforms, like broadband and Internet, will be things we'll explore. But we have great respect for our broadcast-partner relationships."

Ferreira says that sites like Sportsline.com obviously can't compete with the networks when it comes to paying the huge rights fees, "and in order to drive the rights fees up, the NFL isn't going to put its games everywhere." For now, he says, Sportsline will continue to work with CBS to come up with the right solution for the interactive medium.

"It's going to be difficult, and I don't think it's going to happen as quickly as people think, but we're going to try and push it because it's an eventuality," Ferreira says. "It's such a rich experience that it can't be overlooked by the leagues or the networks. So there will need to be a cohesive effort between the networks and the Internet partners to come up with a solution."

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