Is there any cultural phenomenon bigger than the Internet craze? Sure, the sports craze. Americans just can't seem to get enough sports: Super Bowl Sunday, March Madness, Breakfast at Wimbledon. So what happens when the World Wide Web meets the wide world of sports? Even more craziness.
These days, die-hard fans — men and women — don't just argue at the local sports bars. They use discussion boards to dissect big trades and to second-guess game strategy. They register with online services to get the latest stats. They use the Web to follow sports that don't make the local paper.
This edition of @work explains how the Web is changing the game for sports fans. You'll meet four young professionals who use the Web for everything from following teams in distant cities to collecting statistics for Rotisserie baseball. You'll meet the chief creative officer of a Web site that's devoted to total-immersion reports on far-out adventure sports — from mountain climbing to around-the-world yacht races. And you'll find our scoreboard of the major sports-news destinations: a comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of Web sites from ESPN, CNN/Sports Illustrated, and the other big names in sports media.
Let the games begin!
The Displaced Fan
Team Player: Therese Wells, 37, works in Seattle as a high-tech marketing consultant. From a professional standpoint, Seattle is the perfect place for Wells to be. But from an extracurricular standpoint — Wells is a passionate sports fan — Seattle feels like Siberia. She moved there from Los Angeles five years ago. She didn't mind Seattle's abundant rain or its strong coffee. But she hated feeling isolated from her beloved Lakers, and she hated not feeling up to speed on the strengths and weaknesses of the teams at USC, her alma mater. "The Seattle papers drive me crazy," Wells complains. "They think that college football begins and ends at the University of Washington."
Wells was hamstrung by one other problem: As an avid fan of women's sports, she was hard-pressed to find information on that topic in the local news outlets — a problem that's hardly unique to Seattle. "A depth and breadth of coverage of women's sports just doesn't exist in the traditional media," she says.
Game Plan: Wells uses the Web to get beyond the parochial focus of the local sports page. For example, when she "wants to find out what's really going on in college sports," she visits the online version of the Los Angeles Times (www.latimes.com).
She also uses the Web to get a daily dose of information on women's sports. One of her favorite sites is WNBA.com (www.wnba.com). It offers news and feature articles, player bios, scores and stats, and game schedules. It also has links to team sites. For information on women's soccer, Wells takes a time-out at FIFA.com (www.fifa.com), the Web site of the Federation Internationale de Football Association. It was here that she learned that the Women's World Cup finals would take place at the Rose Bowl between June and July. "The only reason I found out when tickets were going to be available," Wells says, "is that I'd gone online."
Keep Your Head in the Game: Wells also uses the Net to satisfy what she calls her "bizarre fascination with recruiting." Last year, she used the Web to follow the WNBA draft. She had a particular interest in the fate of several players from Stanford. ESPN's Web site, ESPN.com (www.espn.com), allowed her to follow the draft live — from her desk.
Wells even uses the Net to connect with other fans. When the Seattle Reign, from the now-defunct American Basketball League, fired its coach, Wells had to speak her mind. She visited the message board on that team's site: "I got in touch with people I couldn't have found anywhere else."
Coordinates: Therese Wells, firstname.lastname@example.org
Play Me or Trade Me
Team Player: Benjamin Friedland, 23, is a fan of the Web. As an account coordinator at i-traffic, a fast-growing interactive agency in New York City, he helps companies to transform their relationships with customers. Friedland is also a huge fan of Rotisserie baseball — the popular pastime in which friends assemble fantasy teams by "drafting" major-league players. The teams compete by tracking the statistical performances of the players on each roster.
Game Plan: Early last year, when Friedland and 14 of his college friends formed their league, they knew that the Web would play a big role in their competition. They didn't want to sift through box scores, or to track trades and roster moves by thumbing through a newspaper every day. "We wanted a Web tool that would give us one-stop shopping," Friedland says. "Stats, standings, analysis — everything available."
Rotisserie participants can choose from a wide array of sites that will collect stats and keep standings — freeing them up to focus on the important stuff. Friedland and his friends picked SportsLine Commissioner (http://baseball9.commissioner.com) to be the core site for their league. Each league pays a sign-up fee of $99.95. The league gets a customized Web page that tracks statistics and overall league standings (updates are posted each morning). For participants who want to wheel and deal during the season, the site also keeps track of players who, because they were never drafted, remain free agents. "You have to know how to play the market," says Friedland.
Keep Your Head in the Game: When it comes to fantasy baseball, there are as many competing philosophies as there are teams. Some owners crave power hitters, some preach speed. Friedland's view is that you can always find an outfielder with impressive offensive stats. The trick is to fill the traditionally weak-hitting positions, such as shortstop, with players who can hit for average and knock in a few runs. That's why he used his first pick this year to draft Derek Jeter, shortstop for the Yankees. After he got Jeter, Friedland went after pitching.
Friedland was happy with his draft. But he's always looking to strengthen his team with a trade or a free-agent signing. That's why he turns to Fantasy Insights (www.fantasybaseballnews.com), a free service that offers injury updates, scouting reports on players — even information on minor-league prospects. Friedland also pays $24.99 per season to subscribe to Fantistics Insider Baseball (http://fantistics.com). It provides a daily email alert that contains news about injuries, and, every two weeks, it offers trade suggestions, with reports on the top 20 "overachieving" and the top 20 "underachieving" fantasy players. Its "Power Stats" database is sortable by 18 categories. "I love numbers," says Friedland. "The first thing I do every morning is check the Web to see what's happened with my team. I want to know before anyone else does."
Coordinates: Benjamin Friedland, email@example.com
More than a Spectator Sport
Team Player: Kevin Knarr, 30, a project manager at one of the Big 5 consulting firms, loves cycling. He's a fan of the professional tour in the United States and in Europe, and he's a competitive cyclist himself. When he raced for the University of New Hampshire, Knarr was able to maintain a rigorous training schedule. (To stay in shape, bike racers ride hundreds of miles per week.) These days, though, he travels up to 100,000 miles a year on business (by plane, of course). So it's hard to stay current with who's riding well on the professional circuit — let alone to stay in top form himself. But where there's a Web, there's a way.
Game Plan: If you think it's hard to follow LA sports teams from Seattle, try following European cycling from the United States. Knarr has attended races both stateside and in Europe, and he plans to watch part of the 1999 Tour de France in person. ("It's not much of a spectator sport," he admits. "A pack of racers whizzes by you, and there's a big sprint for the finish. Bodies and bikes blur, and you're left wondering who won.")
Knarr doesn't find much cycling coverage in his local paper, the Washington Post, and it's not likely that "ESPN Sports-Center" will open with this lead: "Forty kilometers from the finish, Lance Armstrong launched a daring attack in the second stage of the Tour of Netherlands." So, to keep in touch with his favorite sport, Knarr keeps turning to the Web. One regular stop is the cycling area on Eurosport.com (www.eurosport.com/cycling/cycling.htm), which offers a calendar of upcoming races, in-depth coverage of teams, and updates on races. His other favorite site is VeloCity: Cycling news from Europe (www.worldmedia.fr/tour).
Keep Your Head in the Game: Knarr lives in Washington, DC, and he does the bulk of his training and racing in the mid-Atlantic region. But he also likes to bring his bicycle with him when he's on the road. In the past two years, he's trained in London, São Paulo, San Francisco, and Dallas, among other places.
How does he figure out where to ride in cities that he's never visited? How, in a strange town, does he find the steepest hills to test his legs? He uses several Web tools. One resource is a site maintained by the Squadra Coppi cycling club (www.squadracoppi.com). The club is named after the great Italian bike racer Fausto Coppi, and the Web site not only offers detailed training-ride maps — it organizes rides as well. Before a recent business trip to northern California, Knarr planned his rides by visiting BikeCal.com (www.bikecal.com), which offers a wide range of resources, including routes for more than 200 rides. When he's closer to home, he goes to the Mid-Atlantic Cycling Pages (www.macp.org) for training information, as well as race descriptions, entry-fee listings, and directions on how to get to each race.
And no matter where you live or travel, Knarr says, the place to start is VeloNews interactive (www.velonews.com), the online version of VeloNews, "the journal of competitive cycling." The site covers professional and amateur road- and mountain-bike races, listings of regional training races, advice on repairing and tuning your bike, and more.
Coordinates: Not available
More Than a Game
Team Player: Sports isn't just fun and games. It's also serious business. That's why Marci Grebstein, 35, vice president of media and sports marketing for Staples, turns to the Web as part of her job. What events should Staples sponsor? What sports personalities should the office-supply giant work with to develop promotions? What new sports should the company consider sponsoring? For Grebstein, answering those questions means visiting the Web.
Game Plan: The reason why Staples — and Grebstein — got into sports marketing was to find a new vehicle for reaching its target customers: time-starved small-business owners. "If you've started a business and you've poured your time, effort, and hard-earned cash into it, you're very careful about how you spend your free time," she explains. Lots of small-business people spend their free time on sports. "Getting involved in sports was a way for us to reach our customers — who don't do much TV watching or newspaper reading — in a relaxed environment."
But Grebstein couldn't relax. A casual sports fan, she had to get educated quickly. "Before I came to Staples," she says, "I would look at the front page of the sports section and maybe scan a few other articles. Now I go online. It's a fast and easy way to get the information I need."
Keep Your Head in the Game: First thing every morning, when Grebstein gets into work, she checks the major sports sites, including ESPN.com (www.espn.com) and CBS SportsLine (www.cbssportsline.com), for the scores of the previous night's games. Grebstein also uses the Net to research sports personalities. Recently, for example, she used the Web to learn about the major sports figures in Detroit. And it turns out that Detroit loves Steve Yzerman, the star of the Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings. So Grebstein put together a promotion called "This Is My Office." The premise: "Take your office to Steve Yzerman's office." Companies competed to win game tickets, limousine transportation to the game, and a visit from Yzerman.
The Web also helps Grebstein get up to speed on sports that she knows little about. Her latest interest: auto racing. She uses the Web to learn about the hot teams and the hot drivers — and about who's advertising and who's watching. "The Web," says Grebstein, "is a great tool for educating myself quickly."
Coordinates: Marci Grebstein, firstname.lastname@example.org
Charles Davis (email@example.com) is a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. He's also Fast Company's research editor. Gina Imperato (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a New York Giants fan. She's also an associate editor at Fast Company.
Action Item: Highlights Here
Most sports coverage on the Net takes the form of drab box scores and game summaries. Praja Inc. has devised a service that breathes new life into an old format — by allowing users to create their own highlight shows. ActionSnaps! offers play-by-play video, up-to-the-minute statistics, and game summaries. Want to revel in a winning touchdown drive?
Replay it as many times as you'd like. Want to second-guess a coach's play calling? Check out the site's interactive drive charts. To date, ActionSnaps! has covered only college football. But it plans to expand its coverage to include basketball, soccer, and cricket. Let's go to the (virtual) videotape!
Extra Innings: Sportspages.com
The Web is a window onto a wide world of sports. But if you really want to understand a particular team, nothing beats the sports pages of that team's local newspaper. Sportspages.com links to hundreds of newspaper sports pages, arranged by region. The niftiest feature is the "Daily Link Service." For $35 per year, you get access to the best journalism on the biggest sports stories from around the country.
Sidebar: Front-Row Seats for Far-Out Sports
Watching a baseball game is easy. But how do you get a front-row seat for an around-the-world yacht race? Or for the first ascent of China's remote Karakoram Range? By visiting Quokka Sports, a Web site devoted to high-energy, total-immersion coverage of "adventure sports." Quokka uses multimedia tools to give spectators a firsthand look at hard-to-watch events. And lots of people are looking: The site's coverage of the Whitbread around-the-world yacht race attracted 1.8 million unique visitors. Recently Quokka signed a deal with NBC to help produce that network's Internet coverage of the Sydney Olympics.
Michael Gough, 43, Quokka's chief creative officer and executive producer, spoke with Fast Company about the design and production principles behind this addictive site.
Follow the muses.: Our production decisions are dictated by the "Quokka muses." Affinity: Make the spectator feel like part of a global audience. Empathy: Let people see the event through the competitors' eyes. Understanding: Help people feel like experts. Location: You've got to be there. Participation: Let people view the event from the inside.
Don't watch an event — experience it.: We want people to experience events in an undiluted way. Our coverage of the Around Alone sailing race is a good example. It's a 27,000-mile, 200-day solo yacht race that began last September. GPS technology lets us track the position of boats, while onboard cameras and audio recorders relay sights and sounds. The competitors email their thoughts to us — which gives our audience direct access to what they're going through. Recently, we followed seven world-class climbers as they attempted the first ascent up China's Karakoram Range. We provided updated video and text coverage. But we also tracked each climber's biometrics — including heart rate, body temperature, and blood oxygen.
See a different game.: Nobody wants to be told what to look at. That's why we provide multiple views of an event. Our coverage of the CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) FedEx Championship Series puts users behind the wheel. As you track a race, you can listen to a driver communicating with a pit chief — or use the site to tune into the CART Radio Network to hear the real-time call. You decide how you want to follow the race.
Sidebar: A League of Their Own
Rotisserie baseball got its start in — and its name from — a now-defunct restaurant on the East Side of Manhattan called La Rotisserie Française. It was there, in 1980, that Dan Okrent, now editor-at-large at Time Inc., gathered a bunch of his young pals to explain to them a statistics-driven game that he had created during the off-season. Among the people gathered that day were Rob Fleder, now executive editor of Sports Illustrated, and Lee Eisenberg, now executive vice president and creative director at Lands' End. Okrent and his pals became the founding fathers of a truly mass phenomenon.
Today, 20 years later, six of the founding fathers, along with four other media types, are sitting in the offices of ESPN The Magazine. They're haggling over players and swapping corny jokes. Welcome to the 20th-anniversary draft of the original Rotisserie League. The drafting process hasn't changed much in 20 years. But almost everything else about this league has changed. Dan Okrent, now 51, has retired from active competition. The guys no longer design team logos or produce league newsletters. And thanks to the Web, they no longer spend hours wading through week-old statistics in order to calculate standings.
"If you're at all engaged in this game, then you can't get stats fast enough," says SI's Fleder, now 49. "The Net lets you follow box scores as they're being made."
"I'm convinced that the Internet was invented to serve the needs of Rotisserie leagues," adds Eisenberg, now 52, who has won the original Rotisserie League's championship five times in the past 20 years. "The Net makes preparation easier and faster. There's so much information."
These days, most of the league's owners use a service from USA Stats Inc. They enter information on teams — rosters, salaries, recent trades — and the system automatically tracks all relevant data to create the Rotisserie equivalent of an online stock portfolio.
The Web has also changed the game strategically — by making sports news so easy to get that information is no longer a competitive advantage. That's why Eisenberg refuses to reveal the sites that he uses to stay ahead. But he does offer one piece of advice for aspiring Rotisserie moguls: Use the Web to track the sports pages of hometown newspapers for the players on your roster. Local coverage remains the best source of information on injuries and locker-room tensions. "You can't win this game if you don't go the extra mile," Eisenberg says.
Extra Innings: Ballparks
The Web lets you follow game action from the comfort of your home or office. But there's still no substitute for being there. Ballparks tells you everything that you'd ever want to know about stadiums and arenas. Get all sorts of facts and figures for football, basketball, hockey, and baseball venues — including directions, seating charts, and ticket information. All that's missing are peanuts and Cracker Jack.
A version of this article appeared in the JulyAugust 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.