Baseball America Making Web-Content-for-Cash Work

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Baseball America apparently has avoided much of the customer relations fiasco that could have resulted when it shifted a significant portion of its once-free Web content to a subscription-based premium package.


While customer e-mail concerning the policy shift has been predominantly negative since the package launched May 28, Lee Folger, publisher of Baseball America, said the biweekly magazine's online audience of 400,000 unique visitors has not dropped. As an example, Folger said, his site had more than 45,000 unique visitors on June 4, the day of the major-league draft.


"That's an important day for serious baseball fans, and that helps," he said. "But, if anything, we have seen a rise in site traffic since we added the premium content."


More importantly, Baseball America, Durham, NC, sidestepped the possibility of angering its magazine subscription base of 25,000 by offering the online premium package to its magazine subscribers at no extra charge. The magazine, which focuses on college and pro baseball prospects, has been printing Web identification numbers on subscribers' address labels that can be used to log on to the premium package.


Folger said 1,200 people have paid for the $36 annual online subscriptions so far. In addition, he said, the print magazine has sold more than twice as many annual subscriptions since the premium package went up as it does during a typical two-week period. An annual print subscription costs $48.


Folger said it should be noted that the major-league draft and the current College World Series make this a good sales time of year for his magazine.


However, he said the premium package could continue to increase magazine subscriptions because there is more content included for the money than before.


"We're hoping that's the case," Folger said. "And our goal is to improve the value proposition of our core product, the magazine, by augmenting it with online pieces."


Baseball Digest and USA Today's Baseball Weekly, meanwhile, serve as indirect competition to 20-year-old Baseball America. By comparison, Baseball Weekly has not launched a premium package at its online home at www.usatoday.com. And Baseball Digest, a monthly, currently does not run a Web site but makes some of its articles available at its publisher's site, www.centurysports.net.


Chris Karhl, publisher of the annual baseball statistics journal Baseball Prospectus, said any Baseball America online viewers who are angry about the premium package would be unlikely to migrate to the competition. Karhl said Baseball America is a must-read for fans who want to follow pre-major-league baseball players thoroughly. His company also runs a free daily baseball news site that competes with Baseball America Online.


"The question is whether or not your online content is unique enough for people to believe they are getting enough value for their money," he said. "Baseball America is unique because they only focus on prospects. They have that niche. It's the only publication that focuses on high school, college and minor-league prospects. However, it gets more difficult when you are pulling content into a subscription package rather than adding content and then asking people to pay. People start looking at you like you are greedy. But online content should be like anything else. If you want a pack of gum, you have to buy it."


Baseball America is one of several sports publishers renegotiating their relationships with online viewers, who have come to expect free editorial content. Publishers are looking for ways to make their sites profitable as banner ads sag industrywide. Poor ad sales last month sunk Internet sports network Rivals.com, even after it began requiring viewers to pay for insider information on their favorite teams.


MinorLeagueBaseball.com, a site offering baseball statistics on minor-league players, does not plan to offer a premium package to bolster its bottom line in this rough ad market.


"But never say never," said Steve Densa, assistant director of media relations at the St. Petersburg, FL-based site. "There are no current plans, but we are always looking for ways to increase revenue."


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