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Site covers ad loss with fantasy fee

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 19, 2002

Free fantasy football is a powerful lure online, enough that Sportsline.com had about 2.5-million registered owners hitting its site last fall to keep up with their teams.

Those masses are in for a surprise, one Sportsline concedes won't be popular: This year, it'll cost to play the game.

"We didn't enter this whole thing with the intention of one day going back to the pay model," said David Hersh, Sportsline's general manager of fantasy sports. "We would have been happy to continue to give the products away, but last year, like the rest of the dot-coms, our ad dollars dried up. We either would have to cut back on the service or have less content, or go back to a subscription product."

Sportsline will offer its Football Commissioner product -- basically you handle whatever money you want and the site manages the draft, lineups and scoring -- for $140 a league, with a $20 discount for returning leagues that trims the price to $10 per team. The site also will have three tiers of fantasy play, ranging from $30 to $250 per team with league champions earning from $150 to $1,600.

The site charged for its fantasy football from 1997-99 but saw its traffic rise in 2000 when it offered free leagues. The company's fourth-quarter report for 2000 identified a 161 percent increase in page views over the fourth quarter of 1999, and the site's registered users also more than doubled.

Now the site will trade much of that growth, hoping the new and potentially loyal subscribers can make the site less reliant on ads for revenue. Hersh recalled his first season at fantasy site commissioner.com (later bought by Sportsline), when roughly 200 leagues paid about $300 a year for fantasy baseball. Five years later, more than half those leagues still are paying to use the same service.

"It's like an annuity," Hersh said. "Whenever you lock someone into a commissioner league, once someone's using your product and you deliver on that product, you have them as a customer for five or 10 years."

ESPN.com also charges for its fantasy football, with teams starting at $30 each or three for $50. CNNSI.com and NFL.com are continuing with free options, and Yahoo.com is offering a free product but touting alternatives that range from $25 a team to $125 for a managed league.

The gambit for Sportsline is whether the added revenue from fantasy sports -- it would be happy if 20 percent of last year's free customers convert to the pay model -- will offset the drop-off in traffic the site can expect, as well as any impact on ad revenues.

TID-BYTES: For early morning updates on the British Open, check out opengolf.com, the event's official site. A prominent link goes to fantasycup.com, which offered a British Open fantasy game, with a $30 entry fee. The jackpot is 250,000 pounds (about $377,000), but to land it, you had to correctly predict the top eight golfers, in exact order. Good luck. ... Rough week for 76ers guard Allen Iverson at thesmokinggun.com, which posted not only his mug shot from his arrests in Philadelphia but details of his password-protected wedding registry from Williams-Sonoma. What better way to show your support amid his legal troubles than stainless steel spaghetti tongs ($14) or a set of marble corks ($28)? ... It's ego-massage time at Buccaneers.com, where a poll this week coyly asks fans: "Which back should be on the field for all third downs this fall?" Yes, Mike Alstott, you won with 49 percent of the vote. But who are the 9 percent voting for free-agent rookie Zain Gilmore?

-- If you have a question or comment about the Internet or a site to suggest, e-mail staff writer Greg Auman at auman@sptimes.com.

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