USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





FoxSports.com Sets Sights on Big Leagues With MSN Deal

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As ESPN.com ends a three-year partnership with traffic-heavy MSN, and underdog FoxSports.com takes its place, OJR interviews the executives who are leading their teams into battle. In the second of two installments, we talk with FoxSports.com's Ross Levinsohn.

This month FoxSports.com takes a major step away from also-ran status as the new sports content provider for portal MSN. The Fox cable and television networks have access to a dizzying array of content, thanks to national deals with the NFL, NASCAR and MLB and regional contracts to carry dozens of NHL, NBA and MLB teams. Fox Sports reaches into nearly every sports viewing household. But that reach has eluded FoxSports.com, despite deals with Lycos, Real Networks and eBay designed to increase traffic and revenues.

If early results hold, Ross Levinsohn, senior vice president and general manager of Fox Sports Interactive Media, at least can cross increasing traffic off his to-do list. According to internal server statistics, the site notched more than 10 million unique visitors, including nine million described as "new," during the first 13 days following the July 1 switch to MSN. Users are averaging eight pages a visit, which matches pre-switch behavior. The monthly average for page views was 140 million before July 1; the site is reporting 110 million page views so far this month.
 
At Alexa.com, a site that tracks Web traffic, FoxSports.com is in the "Movers and Shakers" top 10 and has moved up in traffic rank to 369 on July 14 from a three-month average of 1,669.
 
FoxSports.com has received more than 5,000 e-mails about the switch and accompanying redesign with user feedback running around 80 percent. Via e-mail, Levinsohn offered his take on the initial numbers: "I think there is a huge base of general sports fans out there who click on what is easiest to get to. By being in the position on MSN, we are opening our site up to an entire new audience."

Levinsohn, headquartered in Hollywood, has been at the helm for much of the site's journey. Already an online veteran after executive roles at CBS SportsLine and AltaVista, he joined Fox Sports in September 2000 following News Corp.'s decision to break up News Digital Media and turn the sites over to the television divisions. He spoke with OJR on the eve of the site's latest transition. Excerpts from the conversation follow.

Ross Levinsohn: In 2000, we made a decision at Fox Sports to basically start over. We shut down what was the old FoxSports.com, restructured the entire company, put up a holding site for news and scores that we actually outsourced while we hired new staff, and we designed the concept of what Fox Sports should be.

It was the first time truly that the television divisions had control over what they wanted the Web to be, at least on the sports side. In August 2001 we relaunched FoxSports.com prior to football season. In the first year we struck deals with Lycos, Real Networks and eBay, all for distribution and content sharing, strategic partnerships. ... We were the sports solution for Lycos, we were the sports anchor tenant in video for Real and we were the anchor sports tenant for eBay for auctions.

What that allowed us to do was generate some immediate revenue. Each one was different but they brought some revenue to us. It gave us some strategic partnerships which put us on the map again and it helped us develop a lot of products without having to add 200 people to our staff. ... We were able to run our business at a much lower run rate than our competition. It enabled us really to get this business back off the ground without having to invest tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

By the time those deals ended (two years later) the business models had changed. We had staffed up a little bit more. We had gotten an ad sales force together. We had hit the marketplace. The ad climate was getting better. In our fiscal year, which was July 1 to June 30, which is just coming to an end, this was the first fiscal year where we controlled all aspects of our business. We finally had all our feet on the ground, all our strategy in place, everything was synced up. ... I finally felt like we were in a position where we could start to invest a little bit in the business and run it.

While all this was going on, some critical undercurrents took place. One, we did a strategic partnership a year ago with the Sporting News to acquire their free site -- we didn't buy them but we struck a deal where they folded their free business into ours -- and to partner on the fantasy side. They had a good fantasy product; we had outsourced our product. ... They had about a half-million players. They had a decent-size site, a little smaller than us but relatively on par, but they didn't have television promotion for their brand and their product. So we struck a unique deal where they folded their free site and content into us and we gave them branding within FoxSports.com. We agreed to use our sales force to sell the collective sites. We decided to adopt their fantasy games and they would co-brand them as FoxSports.com. We sell them and we promote them on television. One of the offshoots of this is last fall we launched a fantasy football TV show, half-hour series that ran for 17 weeks on Fox Sports Net. ... It created larger inventory and user base for the site. That show's coming back this year.

Online Journalism Review: How many fantasy players do you have now? Is there an average revenue point that each of these players brings in?

RL: I think it's close to a million. We offer a variety of different games. In football -- two are free, one is pay. The commissioner product, which is a pay game where you set up a league or you join one, you draft players in a pre-season draft.

OJR: How many of your roughly million players are pay players?

RL: Probably 30 percent (in football).

OJR: What do the rest bring to you?

RL: One of the other games is a sponsor-driven game. Last year Budweiser paid to sponsor a pick 'em. ...The other roughly 60 percent play a draft and trade salary cap game that generates a huge amount of traffic. The average user during football looks at around 55 pages of content a month, which made us during football season the third-stickiest site in the sports category. We do fantasy for football, baseball, hockey, golf, auto racing.

OJR: So that's one of your revenue streams.

RL: Advertising has been significant for us this year -- this was the first year where we took total control. Previously Lycos was the main seller for us. From FY2003 to FY2004 our ad revenue was up by about 150 percent.

OJR: How do you gauge your success compared to competitors?

RL: Let me paint the broad sports marketplace. Of the general sports sites -- ESPN, SportsLine, us, Sports Illustrated. I don't know what ESPN does in terms of total revenue, although I've heard it's close to $100 million total revenue; I don't know how much of that is advertising. SportsLine is a public company, so you can look that up, but the rough numbers they did $65 million in revenue, of that $20 million was fantasy related, so maybe they did around $40 million in advertising. SI is not public, but our guess is maybe they're in the $10 million range for ad revenue. ... Then there are the portal sites, Yahoo and AOL -- Yahoo Sports does somewhere between 8 and 10 million unique users a month, which puts them second in terms of overall metrics, and they do from what I'm told by others around $50 million a year in advertising. ESPN has been at 17 million doing $100 million in revenue, SportsLine averages between 5 and 7 million uniques a month and does $75 million. Yahoo has 10 million and did $50 million so you can see the disparity between portal selling and sports vertical selling.

OJR: It seems to me there's a couple of different ways to benchmark success.

RL: SportsLine will spend $100 million a year. ... We spend a fraction of what our competition spends. We've done things real cost-effectively. I don't worry about, frankly, what other people do. I view it as we're starting a business from scratch and we spend a lot of time working to promote what's on air in all our regions. We only have a page for each site. We don't build out full Web sites for each network. ...

OJR: What if I want something deeper that's regional?

RL: We encourage people to sign for a personalized daily newsletter. You'll get local headlines, local TV listings, in some cases, national promotions, even regional promotions. We try to personalize it on a direct marketing level.

OJR: But without building 20 sites?

RL: In the old incarnation of FoxSports.com, we invested a significant amount of money in building out the regional Web sites, and it just didn't translate.

OJR: When you made the deal with Sporting News was that at the same time you changed your own content production?

RL: What we did was we had eight staff writers who covered the major sports and we let go of them as permanent employees. A few of them left and took jobs at other places; probably half those (are) still writing for us but freelancing. ... On top of that we added all the Sporting News content and a half-dozen deals with other content providers like College Football News. ... There were a bunch of press reports about us cutting back, but we actually bolstered our content.

OJR: What you cut back on was original content specifically produced for you.

RL: In FY03, we had those eight writers. In FY04, we probably had 25 writers. What I did was take the money we were paying to the staff writers and we invested the money to get a significantly larger amount of content from freelance writers. ...

OJR: You don't seem to make the same kind of use of your on-air staff that ESPN makes on its Web site. Why is that the case?

RL: We're starting to. ESPN's been at it for a long time. They've been running their Web business with their television business since they've taken it back in house. They do a really good job integrating their talent, integrating their advertising. They sell a lot of integrated advertising. Everything's under one roof. Really until a couple of years ago that wasn't the case here. We've been both cost-conscious and, in some cases, victims of existing contracts. In some cases our talent was writing for other Web sites and we couldn't step in. We've been waiting for those contracts to come up. We signed Darryl Waltrip, who's our main NASCAR contributor, Jay Glazer, who is moving to Fox Sports Net and Fox Sports from CBS SportsLine. ... Joe (Buck) loves the Web. He drove the feature we have, "e-mail the booth." ...

OJR: A lot of people like to compare you to ESPN but you're not similar enterprises to begin with.

RL: ESPN has done a couple of things. They've had their business on the Web for a lot longer than we have. They're a national network. We're a regional sports business. We also happen to be a national broadcast network. In hockey, we have probably a half-dozen analysts with Fox Sports Net around the country who contribute to our Web site; same thing with basketball. But they're not getting the national face time like on ESPN. ...

We're starting to build that up as contracts come up -- Max Kellerman's a great example. Prior to even doing his deal we were sitting down with our business affairs group and the programming guys, how to weave Max into the Web. He's the perfect demo. His entire staff's going to contribute. I actually met with Max a couple of months ago. We sat down and thought about what's the best way to get him and his contributors to contribute to the Web site. We're going to launch "Max's Bunch" in July. We're going to have sort of like (ESPN's) Page 2 with a Fox edge. Some of these guys wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. We're trying to tap in to the young, hip sports-fanatic market; the writers are all based in Los Angeles.

OJR: How do you promote FoxSports.com?

RL: The regionals get our brand out. We're integrated into every show through tickers and crawls. We haven't done a lot of 30-second spots, hard-core branding.

ESPN, they have a great Web business, they've built it through the last 10 years. Their deal with MSN contributed a lot to their business. I think our business model is better. We don't spend that much money. We're just starting to get our rhythm. The areas where we're probably ahead -- on the broadband side, and now that we're going into partnership with MSN, we're taking all that content that was behind a wall and turning it free.

OJR: What does the deal with MSN mean to you?

RL: If you view the portals as the national broadcasters, if you look at Forrester Research, Jupiter, they say somewhere around 80 percent start their day at AOL, Yahoo or MSN. For us, MSN puts us in front of the largest possible Web audience in a consistent matter, something we never had.

OJR: You had a link to a "Dodgeball" movie site (a picture from sibling 20th Century Fox) that looks like the tabbed links to your real sports pages. Aren't you blurring the lines between advertising and content?

RL: Sports fans know. Our users are not dumb. This is actually the first time we've ever done that; it's a really unique case, a customized opportunity for us. ... You're touching on something that I think is really interesting -- advertising in the future. It's changing. MSN and Yahoo yesterday had "takeover advertising" (an ad that covers the page) from Coke. I don't know what Coke spent, but I'm guessing combined over one million for the day. If somebody said to a TV broadcaster a year ago that Coke was going to spend a million in a day on two Web sites, they would have laughed at you.

Let me use a Fox show. "24" -- the last two years -- were brought to you by Ford; the first two minutes this year was a two-minute short film about Ford followed by, 'this show is commercial free brought to you by Ford.'

Watch the NBA finals tonight, before the game starts 30 seconds will be devoted to the sponsor. That's been going on in sports for as long as I can remember. The Web is trying to find its own way to integrate that kind of advertising. We've not gotten any feedback (from users) that the advertising thing was upsetting to them. You wouldn't get a link there for "Fahrenheit 9/11". You wouldn't get a link there for "Shrek 2". If "Field of Dreams" came out today that might be a candidate.

OJR: What is winning for you?

RL: Winning is a little bit different when it comes to the Web. Winning is: Can you make your business profitable and can you support whatever your core goals are? So our goals are probably different than SportsLine. My goal inasmuch as it is to provide a full-service sports site for users it's also to support what we do in our core business, which is television. Given that on the cable side we're a regional sports network, a lot of the challenge is how do you tell somebody what's on where. ...

Here's the reality, in order for us to provide a rich deep experience on a regional level we would have to invest a significantly larger amount of money and we did that several years ago and created very robust sites and no one came.

OJR: Were you just ahead of the curve on that one?

RL: I don't know. If you talk to the portals, they will tell you a percentage somewhere between 20 percent and 30 percent of people personalize, so you have to make a business decision that maybe the audience truly doesn't want it or maybe they do. I'll tell you this. MSN is going to afford us the opportunity to do some things from a personalization standpoint that we otherwise couldn't. They have technology; they have the ability. I've been a portal user since Day One on the Internet; their My MSN product -- where you can actually drop and drag sections -- to me, that's the coolest things about it.

OJR: How have you figured out what your traffic should be when you go to MSN?

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RL: (Laughing) Boy, if that isn't the $30 million question. We have listened to them. They have given us some statistics of what they're expecting. We had to sort of map out what we think our inventory from an ad standpoint might be. ... So we just have some guesses. We also have looked at some historicals from Nielsen NetRatings and MediaMetrics for ESPN and MSNBC. Also, (MSN) just made a changeover in the careers category.  They were with Monster and they changed over to CareerBuilder, and in the first month CareerBuilder tied Monster. It was a huge move.

OJR: How much do you think ESPN was getting (from MSN)?

RL: In the two years that ESPN was with MSN, they went from 6 million uniques a month to 17 million. I don't know how much of it is organic. Call me in mid-July and I'll tell you. My expectations are conservative so I'm not going to sit here and tell you I think we're going to triple our traffic. I'm optimistic that we'll grow substantially. But the business deal we cut is larger than how many uniques we get; the opportunity to do business with Microsoft and MSN, with categories ranging from MSN to personal media players to Xbox to personalization technology -- on and on.

OJR: How does this help you with Xbox (Microsoft's gaming platform)?

RL: We've never had an entr?e in (to Xbox). We've had three meetings in a month with Xbox trying to figure out ways how we can support their initiative and they can support ours. I can't sit here and tell you what we're going to do. We're not game publishers. We do have games on our site. We produce those with a company called WildTangent. ... If you think of Xbox as a community, not just as a console, which is what I think they're selling, I think sports in the community aspect is a large thing. The tribal nature of sports is what creates so much hype and interest and fandom. People love to fight about their favorite team. I think there are half a dozen things that we can do with Xbox in six months that would be very unique and would not be console games.

OJR: Do you expect a drop-off of ESPN's traffic?

RL: I don't know what they're going to lose or gain. I know we're going to gain. I can comfortably predict that we will grow. How much? I don't know. Just the mere fact that we're going to be in front of so many more people -- that's the biggest things I hear. I'm sitting in an airport in Chicago and talking to the guy next to me and when he hears I work for FoxSports.com, (he says) "Oh, I didn't know Fox Sports had a Web site." I sit back and go, "Are you kidding me?" But the truth is, we have not had that direct exposure online that some of our competitors had.  Our four primary competitors -- Yahoo Sports, ESPN, SportsLine and Sports Illustrated -- have all had major portal relationships.

OJR: Is SI.com smaller than you think it should be given all their advantages?

RL: I think SI had the opportunity seven years ago to be the dominant brand online and I think that, just look at the relationship with AOL, they're both owned by the same company and SI is not the sports provider. You don't see SI flashing all over AOL Sports. I spent 7 years at Time Warner. I can't understand why one of the three dominant brands in sports publishing -- and clearly SI was the strongest brand if you measured over the last 30 years. ... to do nothing with that in a synergistic way made no sense to me. When I was at Time Warner I was a part of something called Time Warner Sports, which was supposed to be the hub of all sports within Time Warner but SI was not a part of it. Go figure. ... It boggles the mind. If you added up the Time Warner sports properties -- Turner, TNT, Nascar.com, AOL, HBO sports, SI, you've got a tremendous array of sports content. Does AOL Sports resonate with anybody? But Sports Illustrated is a sports brand so why wouldn't it be the sports brand at AOL?

OJR: Is your goal for FoxSports.com to be the #1 sports Web site?

RL: My goal is real simple. I want (Fox Sports Television Group Chairman) David Hill and (Fox Sports Networks President) Bob Thompson to be happy, for us to make them gobs of money. It's not about being number one for us. I want us to be a strong contributor in a lot of different ways. The goals are really simple. I want to support the core businesses. So what does that mean? That means the Web can be a valuable component for advertisers buying on cable and broadcasting, for leagues and college conferences we have huge, multi-billion-dollar relationships with. The programming we spend a lot of time and money on -- we should be able to expose that programming to the largest possible audience online. That's the beauty of the MSN deal for us, in that respect. Younger people are spending more time online. We've got to get Max Kellerman and the "Best Damn Sports Show" and even Dodgers baseball in front of them.

That means we need exclusive unique content. We need opinion. Everybody's got the same feeds -- AP, Stats Inc, SportsTicker, Reuters news feeds. You've got to differentiate with opinion. We need to produce features and products people want to come use, the video games and the fantasy games people want to play. We need to provide the information to people wherever they are so two years ago we set out on the wireless track and I think we're in a great position there. Same goes for broadband. And lastly, we need to make money. It's not acceptable just to be a cost center.

OJR: If you were going to take the ways you make money and put them in to a pie what would be the pieces of that pie?

RL: I'd put them in three buckets -- advertising, subscription revenue and commerce. My goal is for it to 50 percent advertising and 50 percent subscription/commerce. Two years ago that's exactly where we were. The ad market wasn't good. We were making a fair amount of money through broadband video with Real, and we were doing a lot of auctions. Today we're probably 70 percent advertising, 30 percent subscription/commerce. It's important to develop those recurring subscription revenue streams. In certain cases the market is there. Clearly, fantasy sports is one. People actually do want to buy goods and services online. I think, and we'll come out with these in the next 12 months with Microsoft. There are other products we can deliver to sports fans that don't fit into either one of those obvious categories.

OJR: Are you going to offer RSS?

RL: We probably will. We're going to work with Microsoft on how we deliver things like that.

OJR: What are we going to be talking about this time next year?

RL: In tandem with RSS, I think we're going to be talking about how do you sift through the millions of bits of data that are out there to get what you want, whether it's personalization or content delivery, whether it's via a Web site, email or desktop.

OJR: Where do you think wireless and other methods of delivery are going?

RL: I think wireless is just going to be a hockey stick (graph) up. It just continues to go through the roof. What you'll see is a vetting out -- a lot of companies will go out of business and those that are in it will just get bigger. I am incredibly bullish on wireless. ... That's one of the things. Broadband video is another.

Another area we haven't talked about but is clearly going to revolutionize the media business is the coming of the media center PC. When you think about putting all of your digital information into a computer that is attached to your television and can deliver that information to other parts of your home -- it may scare a lot of people who say, "I can't even set the clock on my VCR," but, remember, as the younger kids get older this is second nature to them. When I see the demos I've seen in the last six months, of HP, Microsoft and others ... As a father -- she's 19 months -- I probably already have 2,500 pictures on my computer; when all of that gets put on a server attached to my TV it just changes things.

Parallel to that, something we all need to think about, is that box which will sit on top of or next to my television will have a high-speed Internet connection, will allow me stream video live or download it on my television so it becomes another distribution system for video or programming. That box will be my tuner, my DVR, my TV player, my DVD burner, my digital hub for photos, music, videos either that I've bought at stores, downloaded through television or loaded in via my camera. My only concern is how do I back it up? If I lose it all, I'm dead.

OJR: Last thing on Microsoft, whose idea was this?

RL: It's something that I worked on literally going back three and a half years before the ESPN deal was done, we were in discussions with them. The timing back then wasn't right for us. We stayed in touch. ... The real story is we were able to come together pretty quickly, because we both agreed where the business should be and were not fighting over turf.

OJR: You agreed you should be partners and not licensees.

RL: Correct. That's exactly what we are.

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Related Links
Alexa: FoxSports.com traffic rank
CBS.SportsLine.com
College Football News
ESPN.com
FoxSports.com
MSN
Radio UserLand: All About RSS
SI.com
Sporting News
WildTangent
Yahoo Sports
Related story on OJR
Interview with ESPN.com's John Skipper
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Ross Levinsohn, senior vice president and general manager, Fox Sports Interactive Media

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