What's New in Web Services

By Staff

Athletic Management, 14.4, June/July 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1404/bbweb.htm

A year after dotcom companies began falling like left-handed batters facing Randy Johnson, the smoke has begun to clear for athletic directors looking for Web-site hosting services. The two companies most involved in the athletic department market--Official College Sports Network (the new name for Fansonly) and iHigh--say they have weathered the storm and are looking to expand their coverage. Other companies, such as eteamz and HighWired, are also continuing to serve athletic teams as part of broader Web efforts.

Those not surviving include Totalsports, which closed its doors in April 2001, forcing more than 60 college athletic sites to find new homes. About half of those eventually signed on with OCSN, while most of the others either use iHigh or have moved their Web site operations in house.

Where is Internet hosting for athletic programs headed now? At iHigh, the economic downturn resulted in layoffs and a slight change in focus. In addition to its Web site services, iHigh has also moved into the sponsorship arena.

"We had to accelerate our business plan,"says Rick Ford, Chief Executive Officer of iHigh.com, which services nearly 5,500 active high school sites. "We find corporations trying to make a connection to our market and marry them with events that have been sponsored before. We began to broaden our base and not just be solely dependent on the ups and downs of the Web, and that's been a key for us being able to get through some of the rougher waters."Ford says the company has shown a positive cash flow for the first part of 2002 and that profitability is in the picture for the year as a whole.

iHigh is looking to grow through an increased presence in college athletics. Before starting iHigh, both Ford and Chief Operating Officer Tim Campbell worked at Host Communications, which is heavily involved in marketing college athletics at the school, conference, and NCAA levels. iHigh now works for Host on sites for the Southeastern Conference, several university athletic departments, and numerous NCAA championships, including the Final Four and Frozen Four.

In addition to its free high school services, the company offers a new fee-based service aimed at Division II and III colleges. Ford says the cost will vary based on the exact level of services, but that it will usually be measured in hundreds of dollars per month.

"We can make it inexpensive now because we've got it all built out and we've tested it at thousands of high school and high traffic collegiate sites,"he says. "It's a robust, safe, easy-to-use system."

There are a few other alternatives for schools or teams looking for a Web site host. eteamz.com offers a free Web site service that includes site-building tools, in addition to an upgraded hosting package that costs $4 a month. Although focused more on the recreational and youth league market, eteamz counts about 120,000 high school teams among its more than 860,000 teams, along with numerous college teams.

HighWired.com offers broader services aimed at the entire high school, not just the athletic department. In addition to its Web site hosting and building services, HighWired also has a scheduling and communication program called AD Assist.

Previously focused on big-time NCAA Division I-A programs, OCSN, which counts one Division II and one Division III school among its 122 sites, is also moving into the small college market. A part of Student Advantage, Inc., which reported revenues exceeding $65 million last year, OCSN recently began a new OAS (Official Athletic Site) Basic service, which is priced at $5,000 per year and includes Web site hosting and use of its online content management program.

"Our OAS Premium service, which was our only offering in our first six years of operation, is geared toward Division I-A schools,"says General Manager Jeff Cravens. "Based on a lot of feedback we have received, we believe that OAS Basic is a great alternative for Division II or Division III schools that are looking for an affordable, dependable online publishing solution."

The majority of Division II and III schools continue to operate their own athletic Web sites, with some sports information directors handling the technical aspects of the task and others simply managing the content. At Ohio Wesleyan University, SID Mark Beckenbach is happy to count himself in the latter group. The school's Webmaster takes care of all the site's technical aspects, including setting up a series of templates, which allows Beckenbach to simply update the text without having to do any HTML coding.

"I imagine some schools would be interested"in an outside service, he says. "But the question is how many can come up with the money. I don't know that we would."

Maxey Parrish, Director of Online Services for the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA), thinks more and more schools will be looking for outside help with their Web sites, as the medium gains in importance and complexity. "When they look at costs, the amount of work involved, and the technical aspects involved in hosting a site, most SIDs have concluded that it's best to go with an outside group,"says Parrish, who is also a Lecturer in Journalism at Baylor University, where he previously spent 20 years as Sports Information Director. "There are personnel, time, money, and technology advantages to going with people who have already worked these things out.

"I founded the Baylor athletic Web site in 1997,"he continues, "and I found I spent as much time on the technical side as I did on the news side. But the SID really needs to be in the business of generating news and publicity as opposed to programming."

On the issue of choosing a Web hosting company, Parrish says, "You want to look for overall strength and be with someone who has a lot of schools under their umbrella. I think an athletic director should look for overall stability in a company and look at what other schools are doing. There is definitely strength in numbers."

Parrish also advises athletic directors, especially at the college level, to keep an eye on where the industry heads in the future. "What we will ultimately see is a marriage of traditional print, television, and the Internet,"he says. "And there is no greater source of growth for that than there is with sports. I think on a national level, we need to be looking hard at where the technology of this industry will take us and be ready to tap into that.

"Where it winds up, we don't know,"Parrish continues. "But we can't begin to fathom the inventory schools will one day be able to have. We're talking streaming video and audio for every soccer match and softball game. And that's what we have to focus on."

Cravens points out that the University of Maryland sold more than $200,000 of merchandise in one day through its online store after winning the men's basketball title, and that similar use of the Web will only increase in the future. "Licensed merchandise sales have been a business opportunity for an athletic department for a long while,"he says, "but the Internet provides another, and now preferred, way that consumers can get what they want.

"As the medium evolves, athletic directors will continue to understand the importance of Internet-based communication as a key tool in developing an ongoing relationship with their key constituents,"Cravens continues. "This vehicle will very quickly provide new business and marketing opportunities, while also growing existing business."