No Rival for Network of Sports Team Sites

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Online sports network Rivals.com is blowing away its competitors in the battle for loyal home users, doubling the time spent per user of more well-known sites such as ESPN.com, according to figures confirmed Monday by Nielsen//NetRatings. Rivals.com ranked No. 4 on the Web in the home-user category for January, producing an average of more than an hour for the second consecutive month.


Six months of similar results by Nielsen//NetRatings show Rivals.com's average home viewer spent an hour per month at its sports team-oriented Web sites since the firm launched in August. On the other hand, Nielsen//NetRatings tests also have revealed that Rivals.com's number of monthly unique visitors has normally been far less than half the number who have logged onto ESPN.com, as well as other online sports leaders.


Dan O'Brien, analyst at Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, MA, said Rivals.com's positive statistics showed audience loyalty and were more meaningful to Internet marketers than metrics purely based on number of viewers.


"There's been a shift from taking a lot of stake in ad impression-based results to treasuring performance-based results," O'Brien said. "People are becoming more interested in paying for ads based on metrics that show loyalty than paying for just a number of eyeballs."


Rivals.com, Seattle, has assembled 460 affiliate Web sites, providing them with publishing equipment and/or software. Most of the information-based sites are dedicated to a particular high school, college or professional team, while offering up-to-the-minute details on the maneuvers being played out in areas such as professional basketball trade talks and college football recruiting.


John Uppendahl, senior VP of marketing communications at Rivals.com, said his site attracted 8.1 million page views on Feb. 2, the first day high school football players can sign national letters of intent to play for their colleges of choice. A typical football recruiting story at Rivals.com reports what a high school player says after speaking with persuasion-minded coaches or touring a school's athletic facilities. Fans historically have relied on radio talk shows to get inside information in the months leading up to the annual signing day, but in recent years have migrated online in droves to find out if a highly touted player has been swayed in his college choice. Uppendahl said football recruiting, although not solely responsible for the network's high ratings last month, epitomized the kind of information that's central to his company's loyal following.


"All the fans are wondering: 'Who is going to play for my team next year?,' " he said. "Recruiting is really the lifeblood of sports. On the Internet, fans can follow the developments on a play-by-play basis. And there's a sense of mystery and excitement because it's insider information. That's the stuff people love."


Another core part of Rivals.com's audience, Uppendahl said, are fans who have moved to different regions of the country but still want local media-type coverage about their teams. He said his firm's sites granted national retail and service advertisers with an audience of "passionate fans who get to read more than the 5-inch blurb they'll get at USA Today about their teams. The devout interest people have in local sports, and the quality time they spend at our sites because of it, creates a great advertising venue."


Uppendahl said the History Channel, Intel and Real Networks have advertised on his firm's network. While none of those companies made comment on the success of the ads, O'Brien said that Nielsen Net's ratings demonstrated that advertisers on Rivals.com were likely getting their money's worth.


He said the test results suggested that Rivals.com had become "the Holy Grail of what everyone's trying to do. It's what Yahoo has been trying to do - move from being a portal where people go to other sites to being a place where people stay. The longer people stay at your site, the more you can 'monetize' your customers and ads." n
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