Bottom of the Net

No News Is Bad News for Official Team Web Sites

From trade rumors to injury reports to innuendo, rabid sports fans can find it all on the web, thanks to sites like sportstalk.com, athletesdirect.com, espn.com, and sportsline.com.

Not so with official team sites, however. Even though teams are in a unique position for providing inside info on their official sites, they generally drop the ball when it comes to offering fans real team news. Instead, they focus on marketing efforts such as online "stores" selling team merchandise and game tickets, interactive games and trivia contests, and supervised "chats" with team players and coaches. "Team news," at best, consists of game updates, limited player statistics, and press releases.

"Of course, we'd like to be the ultimate source of information for our fans," says Ken Ilchuk, senior Internet manager for the Jets, "but our front office doesn't want news out there before its time. They don't want to lose that control. It's the reality of our business."

Whether it's due to front office control or a lack of Web resources, the news shortfall is embarrassing for many teams. According to David Sweet, a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal Interactivewho pens the Internet sports column "Nothing but Net," news on the Atlanta Braves' official team site has been as much as eight days behind this season.

Through its own Web surfing, the Voicefound that local teams don't fare much better. The Rangers' official site, for instance, focused on the fortunes of the team's minor league affiliate earlier this off-season—this while the big club was caught in a swirl of reports and rumors about major front-office and personnel decisions that ultimately netted a new GM, head coach, and team captain. Mets.com, meanwhile, tells nothing of the team's frantic search for pitching help, and the most recent posted press release is from before the All-Star break. And the MetroStars' site has addressed the soap-opera-ish troubles of German defender Lothar Matthäus with only a vague statement from the team's GM.

"So far, most teams have treated their Web sites the same way they have treated game programs and yearbooks," says Noah Liberman, a writer who covers sports on the Internet for the trade mag Sports Business Journal. "It's something they have complete control over and they use it to present their version of what's going on with the team. Teams are in the habit of leaving it to the newspapers to look under the rocks."

By ignoring hard news on their official sites, however, Sweet and Liberman believe, teams may be losing hits and, ultimately, money. Most sites feature advertising from team sponsors. If fans have no reason to visit, advertisers have no reason to advertise.

"Fans want to know what's going on with the team," says Liberman. "If they don't get it on the team sites, the ESPN.coms will fill in the gaps." Some teams are looking to avoid this migration by changing their outlook on hard-news content. The Cincinnati Bengals, ironically the last major pro team to launch an official site, have hired a former beat writer, Geoff Hobson of The Cincinnati Enquirer, to write most of the site's content. To date, he has covered everything from contract holdouts (running back Corey Dillon) to team player policies ("loyalty clauses" in contracts) with a newspaper-esque candor. "What fans want in a Web site is content they're not getting elsewhere," explains Bengals spokesman Jeff Berding. "By doing this, we hope to keep our fans coming back to our site."

Locally, several teams are starting to follow the Bengals' lead. Somewhat. According to Internet coordinator Kevin Corbett, the Giants are now looking to hire a sportswriter for the team's official site, which will relaunch next month. "We've realized that if fans can't get all the information they want from our site, they are going to go to one of the other media outlets," says Corbett. "We can't just limit ourselves to press releases and promotional features. We are not looking to stir up controversy with our new site, but we want our fans to know that they are not going to have to go anywhere else to get information on the Giants."

The Yankees, meanwhile, recently launched a news-driven site, YankeesXtreme.com, to complement their main site, Yankees.com. In addition to offering subscribers customized e-mail addresses (yourname@ yankees.com) and the like, the site employs noted local sportswriters Bob Klapisch and Ian O'Connor to write player profiles and features. Commentary by Klapisch and O'Connor is marked: "The opinions expressed below are not necessarily those of the Yankees."

"The Bengals have a great idea and we want to do some of the same things," says Joseph Perello, a former Yankee front-office man who is now vice president of marketing for UltraStar, the company in charge of the site. "But our site is just the facts. We'll report that Knoblauch is having throwing problems, but we won't try to analyze why or say the team should get rid of him. We'll leave that to the Post."

The Islanders' official site also doesn't cover every controversy, but team vice president of communications Chris Botta says he strives to give the site a "newsy feel." Last month, it featured a comprehensive preview of the NHL Entry Draft. "If we make a trade, we give our fans the reasons why, with quotes from the GM and the scouts, just like the papers," says Botta, who often takes time to answer "any and all" fan questions via e-mail. "We work our asses off on the Net because we don't get the same treatment from the newspapers as the Giants, Yankees, or Rangers."

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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