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Cutbacks hit sports sites hard

By GREG AUMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001


The new year has been a sobering one for sports and the Internet.

Sports sites largely had escaped the recent dot-com failures, but that has changed significantly in recent weeks.

Advertising revenues have dropped, investment capital is looking elsewhere, and the snowball effect has even reached, well, snowball.com, a site that produces nfluth.com, home to the NFL's teen-targeted Under the Helmet. Last month, sports retail site MVP.com -- backed by Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Joe Montana -- eliminated 79 positions and closed two offices. This week 36 more employees lost jobs.

Baseball news site fastball.com recently folded, and stock prices for Sportsline.comQuokka.com (which will handle NBC's site for the 2002 Winter Olympics) have plummeted.

The most alarming news came last week, when the invulnerability of big-name sites was shattered. Foxsports.com (along with fox.com and foxnews.com) is being folded into the network's TV operations by parent company News Corporation. Most of the 125-person online staff will be gone by March, reducing one of the five most-visited sports sites to what will likely be a promotional page for Terry Bradshaw and friends.

Fox had made a serious financial commitment to the Web in the past two years, increasing its staff five-fold and hiring top-notch beat writers from major newspapers to gain credibility and exposure by breaking national stories.

"The Internet's still in its early days, with many, many good years ahead," said Danny Greenberg, vice president of Fox Sports Online. "Those that are pulling out now are making a mistake."

Greenberg came to Fox in October 1999 after directing CNNSI.com from its launch in 1997, and his former employer now looks to be facing layoffs as well. CNN's parent company, Time Warner, is merging with AOL, and the overlap will spark a cost-cutting consolidation that will include "significant layoffs," according to Thursday's Wall Street Journal.

The cutbacks aren't a surprise to Steve Klein, who was one of the Web's first sports editors at USATODAY.com. The economy has forced many companies outside the Internet into layoffs, he says, but the headlines seem to focus on the online casualties.

Klein uses the term "retrenchment" to describe the downsizing occurring at many sites. Companies that were gluttonous in hiring are pulling their belts tight and bunkering down with a smaller staff -- if you lower expenses, you lower the likelihood your site will disappear entirely.

"It's not a sign of things to come; it's happening now," Klein said. "It's happening in waves. Everybody's laying off people. The strategy right now is just to survive. The trick is to stay alive."

TID-BYTES: Frightening thought of the week: the XFL is touting fantasy football leagues on its official page at XFL.com ... The Ben Grieve deal wasn't good news for everyone -- one A's fan named Jennifer has a Grieve tribute page complete with 130 photos at baseball_gal.tripod.com/Grieve.html.

- If you have a question or comment about the Internet or a site to suggest, send an e-mail to staff writer Greg Auman at aumanac1@aol.com.

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