- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

When the next LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony begins to emerge from some remote playground or dusty prep gym, it almost certainly won’t be ESPN, Sports Illustrated or this newspaper that will break the story.

That distinction most likely will belong to Rivals.com, a Tennessee-based Web site specializing in college recruiting and prep and college sports.

College sports junkies have long proclaimed the gospel of Rivals.com, which has made a solid, if still below the mainstream brand name for itself by relentlessly tracking the recruiting efforts of every major football and basketball program in the country.

Recruiting gossip, however, represents only part of Rivals.com. In the last month, executives for the site have completed a deal with Student Sports to bring its prep sports coverage to the site and continue to bulk up its extensive battery of reporters covering each major program.

The efforts, particularly the Student Sports pact, will give Rivals.com access to several prominent football and basketball camps — where many top players begin making choices about colleges or turning pro. And that in turn promises to help make the site a force in tracking star players from the moment they first dominate varsity competition to when they leave for the pros.

“While we feel we’ve done a tremendous job over the years, the attention LeBron and others have now put on prep sports, and younger players in general, have really verified our mission,” said Shannon Terry, Rivals.com president. “The industry is now really moving toward what we’ve been doing all along.”

Rivals.com holds more than 80,000 subscribers, a total that trails other sports sites such as ESPN Insider and CBS SportsLine. But that number translates to a $10 a month subscription fee for each of those people, and an average user spends nearly an hour at a time on the site.

Both figures are nearly staggering in an online world where users typically expect content for free and seamlessly surf from site to site in search of it. Even more eye-opening, Rivals.com became profitable in 2003, another anomaly in an Internet investment arena still littered with red ink and failed companies.

“Rivals.com provides several upgrades for us, for our readers and for our sponsors,” said Andy Bark, president of Student Sports.

Not long ago, such prosperity was a pipe dream for Rivals.com. The company, formed in 1996 under the name AllianceSports, represented a classic Internet rise-and-fall story in which lofty expectations, a sale to competing company Rival Networks for nearly $3million, and a high-profile title sponsorship of the Hula Bowl all ended with the company going out of business in 2001.

Terry, and a small group of the company founders quickly bought back the usable remnants of Rival Networks and restarted the Web site under Rivals.com. This time there would be no splashy marketing or rush to raise money on Wall Street. Instead there was a firm commitment to provide information no leading news outlet was approaching.

Corporate America has taken notice. While the subscription model remains the financial base of Rivals.com, company coffers are now being supplemented by ad buys from the likes of Pepsi, Volvo and Maxim magazine.

Such success almost certainly will bring new buyout offers from larger companies, particularly as the subscription base tops 100,000 later this year. Terry said the company is currently enjoying its independence but refuses to never say never.

“We’re open to larger avenues of distribution,” Terry said. “But programming and content are first and foremost the core of what we have. If we have the best content out there and keep moving past the mainstream, I feel very good about our prospects.”

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