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No News Is Bad News for Official Team Web Sites

And therein lies the advantage. Like the Islanders, the Bengals have had their own struggles with bad press in recent years. With an experienced beat writer generating their content, they satisfy the news needs of their fans while ensuring the team's message gets out.

"At a certain point we know negative news will get covered by somebody," says the Bengals' Berding. "By having Geoff cover it, it shows the fans we have a credible site and we're not just putting out the team side. But we also know Geoff will quote our people and get our side of a [negative] story. That doesn't always happen with the outside media."

Not all teams and organizations have picked up on this Web wisdom. While the Rangers, Jets, and MetroStars all acknowledge the news-delivery aspects of their sites need work and plan to make upgrades a priority, none are ready to announce definitive plans, and moving beyond a PR model doesn't seem likely for these teams. Major League Baseball, meanwhile, is centralizing all of its teams' Web activity under the auspices of its own Internet start-up, Newco, and has asked individual teams to not sign Internet agreements longer than two years in duration. Representatives of the new venture could not be reached for comment regarding the impact this will have on team site content, but the plan is reportedly part of a revenue-enhancing and -sharing strategy that will require high-volume hits to be successful. Whether that means more news or less is unclear.

"Teams will tell you that they don't want to tip their hand," says Sweet. "The front office has to consider its leverage in trade talks and contract negotiations. And they don't want to offend their players. It's a tough balance."

Yet some seem willing to take the chance—in a limited capacity. NBA Entertainment, which oversees the team sites for all the NBA and WNBA teams (although individual teams are responsible for site content), is currently rethinking its Web strategy. "The teams seem to be more conservative than the league office," says Brenda Spoonemore, vice president of Internet services. "We are trying to encourage our teams to use analysis from local beat writers and message boards that allow fans to voice their opinions, good and bad. We can't run away from that anymore."

But just because some teams and leagues are finally picking up on the Web's freedom-of-information ethos doesn't mean team-operated sites will become fans' definitive news source. "I don't think it's a perfect system, because there is an inherent conflict," says Liberman. "It's impossible to expect a writer, no matter what his journalistic background, to write everything he knows, because the team is ultimately paying his salary. It's a trade-off. They have the ability to cover news other writers in town can't. Whether the teams take full advantage of that remains to be seen, but it's interesting that the Internet has actually made them think about it."

Hobson asserts that working for the Bengals hasn't changed the way he covers the team. Yet. "I've always prided myself on being a fair reporter. I always got both sides of every story when I was at the Enquirer," he says. "So far, the front office hasn't made me rethink something because of who's signing my checks."

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