Baseball America Finds Right Chemistry Between Print, Online

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Baseball America Inc. doesn't expect to compete with the print or online subscription numbers of corporate-backed sports magazines, due to the niche content it's been honing since 1981. But the longstanding independent publication appears to have learned how to pitch its best stuff at Internet speed.

In 2001, Baseball America was one of the first traditional sports publications to find a paying audience for its Web subscriptions. And even with annual rates having risen from $48 to $59, the company has seen double-digit percent increases in premium customers since then. To give potential subscribers another option, the site now offers six months for $39 in a recently debuted price point.

"Of course, we'd always love to double our [online subscriptions]," said Lee Folger, publisher of Baseball America, Durham, NC. "But we are not ESPN.com or FoxSports.com. We are more drilled down than that in terms of our content.

"We mainly cover baseball below the major leagues," he said. "We are an important voice for fans that follow minor league, college and high school baseball. So we are definitely pleased to continue to build our online audience. And though we are not ESPN or Fox, we have a place at the table."

Mr. Folger said that increases in online subscriptions and in general site activity have helped to weather a slight dip in the magazine's print base, which recently sloped below its normal median of 25,000 households.

But five years ago, on the day of Major League Baseball's draft, his firm welcomed 45,000 unique visitors to www.baseballamerica.com. This year, on draft day, June 6, the site saw 225,000 unique visitors who clicked to learn about which amateur players their favorite teams were selecting. Draft-day visitors averaged 12.5 page views, Mr. Folger said.

Web Plays Major Role

To build the audience, Baseball America introduced several Web features and intertwined the magazine and online products. For example, the publisher last month debuted podcasts from the 10-day College World Series in Omaha, NE. The publication took Baseball America writer Will Kimmey's daily appearances for the ESPN Radio affiliate in Omaha, 1620 The Zone, and put them online after the broadcast. Only paid subscribers could download them.

Baseball America also gave away copies of a special preview edition for the championship tournament at the event and made it available for free online as a PDF. Mr. Folger said that 20,000 viewers downloaded the digital version of the preview.

"We are getting better at using the Web site to expand the reach of the magazine to the benefit of our advertisers," he said. "Instead of confining the magazine to print, the PDF makes it portable. We are becoming more productive at allowing each medium to help the other."

Reporter blogs from events like the College World Series or during the Major League Baseball draft also have grown in importance since BaseballAmerica.com introduced them in 2004.

"[Blogs] seem to conceptualize or organize the idea of continuously providing information in a way that's different than other communications on the Web," Mr. Folger said. "It's like a diary, but on the Internet."

BaseballAmerica.com underwent a major redesign last winter that was completed just in time for baseball season. Mr. Folger said that the upgraded technology lets the site better handle its rising traffic while offering viewers easier navigation compared with the former destination.

Mr. Folger said his firm looks forward to adding streaming video and continuing an evolution from print-only publisher to multichannel operator.

"We now have a better foundation for the house," he said. "We have better plumbing, and we have better wiring. That's how I like to think of the Web redesign."

Line Extensions Stretch Game

Along with multichannel subscriptions and advertising, the company has tapped other revenue sources.

It publishes annual book editions: "Baseball America Prospect Handbook" ($27.95), a breakdown of the world's most-touted amateurs and minor leaguers; "Baseball America Directory" ($23.95), a guide for college, international, minor league and major league teams; and "Baseball America Almanac" ($18.95), a statistical recap of the prior year in baseball. The 300- to 500-page books are sold at nationwide retail chains and mention the Web site as early as page 3.

Furthermore, the most dedicated "fantasy" or "rotisserie" baseball league participants use the books and BaseballAmerica.com. In another recent addition to the site, rotisserie players can analyze the professional histories of well-known major league general managers like Billy Beane of the Oakland A's or the New York Mets' Omar Minaya in the site's "executive database" to understand their philosophical roots on running a baseball team.

"Baseball America offers a depth of coverage that many 'roto' managers will gladly pay for," said Bob Dorfman, executive director and sports analyst at Pickett Advertising, San Francisco. "It provides valuable information to a niche market, unlike Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News, which offer little added value [when] compared to ESPN.com.

"It seems that Baseball America has a keen understanding of its market, knows what it wants and is doing a fine job of delivering, online and in print," he said.

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