CBS SportsLine Drops the Ball on NFL's Opening Sunday

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While the National Football League had one of its more thrilling opening Sundays on Sept. 8, a surge in traffic at CBS SportsLine.com slowed the site to a crawl and prevented fantasy league participants from tracking their teams' performance.


What's more, the outages come as SportsLine.com Inc., Fort Lauderdale, FL, has switched fantasy league services from free to paid.


Fantasy footballers paid $139.95 this year for each new league and $119.95 for returning leagues as long as they signed up by Aug. 16. Last year, the company had 200,000 free fantasy football leagues. SportsLine will not release how many paid fantasy football leagues were formed this year until it provides its third-quarter financial results in mid-October.


However, in its second-quarter financial report, SportsLine said it expected revenue from its fantasy football products to be two to three times that of its fantasy baseball products, which generated about $1.5 million in billings for the three months ended June 30, 2002.


When it switched its fantasy baseball services from free in 2001 to paid in 2002, the company said, 12,000 paid leagues formed.


SportsLine.com Inc. issued an apology by e-mail to fantasy football league players late in the afternoon Sept. 9 from CEO Mike Levy.


"Just after the 1PM EDT kickoff for the first group of NFL games on Sunday, September 8, 2002, the SportsLine.com network of sites, including CBS SportsLine.com and NFL.com, experienced an extraordinary burst of traffic," Levy said. "Throughout the afternoon, a period of very high traffic, our system struggled to handle the load. As a result, some of our customers experienced slowness and/or outages when attempting to access many of our network web sites, including live fantasy scoring.


"We have identified a combination of causes that created this problem, both internally and from some of our service providers, and we are taking the necessary steps to rectify it."


In April, SportsLine announced the resignation of its chief technology officer and the assumption of his duties by the company's president of product development. It also announced the integration of its fantasy sports operations into its other operations and the elimination of 25 "redundant" technology positions.


Alex Riethmiller, manager of media relations for SportsLine, said the two developments are unrelated.


"We would never lay people off at the expense of the service," he said.


He declined to say how much traffic SportsLine's sites received on the NFL's opening Sunday.


"Very rarely do we release information on daily traffic activity," he said in response to questions sent via e-mail at his request. "What I can tell you is that historically NFL Sundays have been some of our most high traffic days of the year due not only to fantasy leagues but also the popularity of our NFL scoreboards."


Riethmiller also declined to give specifics on what SportsLine was doing to prepare for the following Sunday's traffic.


"We constantly are monitoring our systems in an effort to minimize these kinds of problems and to make sure they don't happen again," he said.


From 1997 through the 2000 baseball season, SportsLine's fantasy sports products were fee-based. The 2001 baseball and 2000 and 2001 football fantasy products were free in an effort to capitalize on a strong online ad market. The company decided to start charging again when online ad dollars dried up.


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