By GREG AUMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 18, 2001
The Internet's best sports water cooler is about to be refilled.
sportsTALK.com, a popular site for hot rumors and speculation, shut down last month, robbing thousands of fans of a source for their daily sports fix.
The latest gossip is soon to become official: The site's founders are completing an agreement with ESPN.com to bring the site back online, though it's unsure what it will be in its next life.
"There's still a debate going on as to whether it will be a sister site, an alter ego of sorts, or some kind of subscription-based service," said 30-year-old co-founder Chad Ford, who launched the site in January 1999. "The only definite thing is that our whole staff is staying intact."
The site's inspiration came when Ford was in law school at Georgetown and saw commuters on his daily train ride tossing aside the rest of the Washington Post for the sports section, which was often devoured in only 10 minutes. He wanted a site with more in-depth coverage, a place where fans can find the tiniest morsels of news.
Two years later, the site was averaging 835,000 visitors and 15-million page views a month, eventually becoming so popular it had to be shut down.
"Our success was, ironically, what killed us," said Ford, who steadily increased the site's bandwidth to accommodate an ever-growing base of readers.
The site's costs were relatively low, with about $20,000 a month in payroll, but the bandwidth cost grew to match and eventually double that, until "the traffic was choking us."
Part of Sportstalk's draw was it was an independent site, keeping up with the mainstream despite a five-man staff. Some of that allure will be lost with the new agreement, Ford said, but it's the only way the site can survive.
"The reality is that it's very difficult for independent sites to survive in this industry," Ford said. "This was really a phenomenon. We never took outside money, never spent a penny on marketing or promotions. It was all word of mouth."
The same product might not be free when it comes back, and Ford concedes that subscription services will be part of the online equation before long. Since the site shut down, its main page has invited fans to enter their e-mail, with a mass announcement promised as soon as the site resurfaced. More than 100,000 people are waiting for the news, which tells Ford there might be enough demand to warrant a small fee.
"The reaction when we went down was overwhelming," Ford said. "This was the bargain of all bargains, but with so much content and people starting to move in this (subscription) direction, this might be worth $3 a month."
Ford said the deal with ESPN still has some kinks to be worked out, but should be finalized by the end of the month. That $3 figure might not last long -- links site sportspages.com has increased its monthly rates from $3 to $12 in the past six months.
TID-BYTES: Among the Monarchos-related items listed on eBay.com this week is something identified as a "rare backside photo." You'd think that's the view the rest of the Kentucky Derby field had two weeks ago, but the term, in racing parlance, refers to a stable area. ... MSNBC.com has a depressing feature that allows fans to type in their annual salary and find out how long it takes Alex Rodriguez to make that much. If it's humbling to see he makes about $41,000 per at-bat, realize that when a CEO proudly punches in $500,000, the site explains that A-Rod makes more than that in a four-game series.
- If you have a question or comment about the Internet or a site to suggest, e-mail staff writer Greg Auman at email@example.com.