Internet Viewing Habits

No End to Features to Win Over Sports Fans

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By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

ESPN Mobile plans to announce today that it will broadcast full-length college football games on its wireless phones.

ESPN, which this year launched its brand of phones on the Sprint Nextel network, plans to carry as many as 25 games a month in the 2006 season.

"People have a thirst for knowing what's going on in as many ways as possible," said John Zehr, ESPN Mobile's vice president of product development.

Sports and technology development have always gone hand in hand. Sports are a major reason that people subscribe to such services as satellite television and buy high-definition TV sets. This year's free online broadcast of the NCAA basketball tournament was hailed as a watershed event for Web-based video.

Technology, in turn, shapes how sports are reported, with such features as instant replay, new camera angles, visual cues on playing fields and telemetric information like that provided on a car's performance during NASCAR races.

Now, media companies are focused on giving fans services that are both interactive and personal.

This week, AOL added fan blogs, social networking and user-generated video to its sports site, giving fans a chance to do what they do best: sound off.

"It's a marriage of a major media site that turns over the bulk of our coverage to bloggers," said Neal Scarbrough, general manager and editor of AOL Sports. At launch, the site will host paid bloggers who will follow gossip and commentary on NFL and NCAA football teams -- 72 blogs in all that will invite commentary and debate from readers.

Over the years, sports fans have provided a reliable audience for newspapers, talk radio and television. More recently, independent blogs such as Deadspin have won followings.

Sports lag behind only adult entertainment and gambling as a major driver of online technology development and adoption. The average Internet user spent two hours and 46 minutes playing online games, nearly 90 minutes on adult sites and 57 minutes on sports sites in the month of July, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

"It's pretty clear that sports is a major draw in media, and it's going to be crucially important for the Internet," said Phil Leigh, president of market-research firm Inside Digital Media Inc. "Interactivity is a crucial part of it."

Yahoo, the most visited site on the Internet, designed the FIFA World Cup site this year to combine elements of television-like coverage with data, statistics and viewer commentary. That site was viewed 4.3 billion times during the month-long tournament, according to ComScore Networks Inc. was launched in 1995 and highlights fan commentary on its site in a variety of ways: through live chat and through users recording their voices and posting them to the site on a feature called "Voice of the Fan."

AOL's site gives its blogs and reader commentary prominence alongside news, videos, schedules and scores. Like AOL's celebrity gossip site,, AOL Sports' FanHouse feature allows fans to post comments on each blog entry.

Yahoo, AOL and other major media companies are trying to harness an already popular free-form online commentary movement, said Jon Gibs, director of media analysis at Nielsen. "Big publishers are smart enough to see a good thing," he said. "People have a variety of opinions and like to voice those opinions."

While many independent bloggers criticize on-air commentators, major media sites are less likely to permit such trash-talking. That lack of independence could hurt the popularity of those sites with hard-core fans, Gibs said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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