Yahoo's Rally Cry

The Web portal has scored with its sports site. Does its success point the way to Yahoo's future?

Sports Fans love a cinderella story. From the 2004 Red Sox coming from down 3-0 to beat the Yankees to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team trumping the Russians, the rule remains the same: Always root for the underdog.

Perhaps the best Cinderella story in sports today is in the press box. Since the birth of the Net, the bigfoot of Web sports has been ESPN. No one has seriously challenged it. Until now. And our plucky hero is ... Yahoo? Insert the $33 billion company's trademark exclamation point here.

Yahoo Sports was an also-ran as recently as two years ago. It lacks the media properties to woo hard-core sports fans to the Web, as Time Warner can with Sports Illustrated or Fox can with its TV and radio networks. Yet Yahoo hasn't stumbled into the glass slipper. Sports content, which draws the majority of its adherents from the highly desirable demographic of men between the ages of 25 and 49, is a gold mine. Yahoo has plotted a strategy to earn a big share of what eMarketer reported to be $548 million in online ad revenue for sports sites in 2007, a pot that's expected to grow to $1.1 billion by 2011.

So far, so good. Yahoo beat "the worldwide leader" in unique visitors in August, September, and November 2007, according to comScore Media Metrix. In the money game, according to a private Nielsen/NetRatings AdRelevance report obtained by Fast Company, both Yahoo Sports and ESPN.com generated about $80 million in ad revenue through the first three quarters of last year. (Nielsen, ESPN, and Yahoo wouldn't comment.) No wonder CEO Jerry Yang cites Sports as part of his goal of "becoming the starting point for the most consumers on the Internet."

The shift in the editorial direction at Yahoo Sports began in early 2006 when the portal hired Dave Morgan away from the Los Angeles Times to be the site's executive editor. "We only had four reporters and there wasn't a robust program of original content," Morgan says, referring to the knock on Yahoo that it only offered third-party info. "But we also had a blank canvas."

Morgan has beefed up his staff to more than 50 people, including such well-known names as boxing and mixed-martial-arts writer Kevin Iole, former Sports Illustrated NFL scribe Michael Silver, as well as former athletes such as retired NBA point guard and popular TNT analyst Kenny Smith. "Our goal is to strike an equal harmony between licensed and original content," says Jimmy Pitaro, general manager of Sports. Pitaro has extended that philosophy to Web video, creating original content, such as its refreshing "SportStream" news-and-analysis clips and "Fantasy Football Live," while also licensing highlights from all the major leagues.

Yahoo's free fantasy-sports leagues have always been a bright spot: Sports captured 57% of the 2007 fantasy market, according to online analyst Compete Inc. Pitaro has built on that success by seeking other niches that inspire similar passion--and lengthy user visits. In June 2007, he acquired Rivals.com, the obsessive college-sports-recruiting destination, for between $90 million and $100 million. He also plucked Jamie Mottram (aka "Mr. Irrelevant") from AOL, where in a little more than a year, he built "FanHouse," a group sports blog, into a powerhouse with 60 to 70 bloggers and 20 million page views a month. The hope is that the blog he's creating for Yahoo incubates a breakout star akin to ESPN's Bill Simmons.

Yahoo Sports' more balanced approach extends to its homepage redesign, which it launched in February 2007. Pitaro says their research shows that too many bells and whistles can lead to an "intimidation threshold" that might send readers packing. ESPN.com offers considerably more content on the homepage; Yahoo Sports' rise began after it debuted its less-is-more approach.

The contrasts between Yahoo Sports and ESPN.com give it all the trappings of a classic rivalry. ESPN has only taken baby steps into the blogosphere and lags in fantasy sports, but overall has an enormous built-in advantage: It televises the games themselves, both on its nine U.S. TV networks and online. "We don't see ourselves as simply a Web site, but as a network that goes across digital," says ESPN's John Kosner, senior VP and GM of digital media. "I don't think there's much question among sports fans who offers the best content."

Yahoo Sports may never rival ESPN in terms of scope. But it doesn't have to as long as it feeds the larger Yahoo effort to reinvent itself. Pitaro says he speaks to Jerry Yang regularly, and the CEO believes that sports is a bellwether of what's possible if major categories such as news, finance, travel, and music are also category leaders. More people starting their day at Yahoo means more ads--and higher rates.

Yahoo Sports' team is taking it one game at a time. But sometimes they can't help but think big. "The vibe here is not timid," Silver says. "We're here to bust down the door and smack some people around."

Feedback: loop@fastcompany.com

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