Rivals.com Loses Ad Network Game

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Rivals.com, a firm that turned high school, college and professional sports team sites into an ad network, has shut down, the company announced yesterday.

All of its employees have been let go with separate severance packages. Meanwhile, its affiliate sites are scrambling to find new Web hosting services and, in some cases, new domain names.

On Tuesday, Rivals CEO Saul Gamoran sent e-mails to the publishers of his firm's 600-plus affiliate sites informing them that the network had been unsuccessful in attracting a buyout and was now out of cash.

In the e-mail, he discouraged publishers from trying to contact his firm. Instead, he gave them instructions on whether they now need new domain names, finding new Web hosting services and how to collect ad dues owed to them by Rivals.

Jack Styczynski, publisher of Hofstra Hotsheet, a Rivals affiliate covering Hofstra University sports, said he was not surprised by the development since rumors had swirled for more than a week that the network was in serious financial trouble.

Styczynski said Rivals had recruited hundreds of sports sites such as his to attract national advertisers when it launched in August 1999. He signed a three-year contract with the network that year.

Rivals offered Web publishers a signing bonus and an ad revenue sales percentage based on the number of page views their site generated. Styczynski, who also holds a day job, said he earned $5,000 from Rivals during his first year but has made only $1,000 since August 2000.

The network originally had regional ad sales offices to attract advertisers, but it closed the units last year. Rivals began encouraging publishers to pick up local advertisers to support their sites. The network also ran contests that offered the publishers merchandise for having the highest click-through rates for ads.

Styczynski said his site had gained a loyal following of Hofstra alumni. He said he wants to keep the site up for their sake but is looking to turn it over to someone else.

"I got into this thinking I could be a publisher or journalist and Rivals would take care of the ad sales," Styczynski said. "I'm not a salesperson. I never wanted to be."

Meanwhile, many Rivals site publishers yesterday posted messages saying they plan to stay online by signing with a Web hosting service during the upcoming weeks.

Rivals at this time last year was hailing itself as "the stickiest sports site on the Web" because of statistics it gathered from various Internet market research firms. The network was holding some viewers for up to an hour a day, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.

Such "eyeball" statistics were key to the company's plans to become profitable, and many experts thought Rivals was on the right track.

In February 2000, Dan O'Brien, market analyst at Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA, said: "Rivals.com has 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 they stay."

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