- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Henry Abbott was perfectly content writing on his own.

He had created a Web site, TrueHoop.com, and watched it grow into one of the more popular places for news, commentary and offbeat tidbits about professional basketball. And he was making a decent living, even if the arrival of his paycheck was a bit sporadic.

But then he got a call from ESPN, the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports.”

“I was blogging along, perfectly happy,” said Abbott, who operates TrueHoop from his New Jersey home. “I wasn’t one of those guys that created a Web site just to sell it. But ESPN called, and it touched off some discussions. I said, ‘I just want to keep doing this. I don’t want to change it.’ I never would have agreed to do something that would have compromised the site.”

After about a year of negotiating, ESPN bought TrueHoop in February and is now integrating the site — and Abbott — into the company’s coverage of the NBA on ESPN.com.

Abbott’s story is becoming a common one. ESPN’s TrueHoop purchase came shortly after the company bought Talented Mr. Roto, a popular independently run fantasy sports Web site. And last month ESPN bought Jayski’s Silly Season Site, a NASCAR-themed Web site run by North Carolina resident Jay Adamczyk.

“In the end, we’re all about giving sports fans what they want,” said John Kosner, senior vice president and general manager of ESPN New Media. “We often turn to our own people and ask what sites they look at. And we hear a lot of the same names.”

ESPN also has been expanding its roster of contributing writers by partnering with several who have been working independently on the Web. Writers appearing on ESPN.com now include Kyle Whelliston, who operates a Web site devoted to college basketball’s “mid-major” conferences; John Hollinger, who publishes his own statistical analysis of the NBA; and Paul Lukas, who operates a blog devoted to discussion of sports uniforms.

The rationale for independent writers partnering with ESPN is simple: The company sees a chance to expand its content and increase traffic to its Web site, and the writer gets to reach new audiences and make a sound living writing about what they love. For most writers, the ESPN relationship has allowed them to concentrate on their work without worrying about how they will pay the bills.

“By plugging into the ESPN machine, their financials improve overnight,” Kosner said. “They, in turn, help us realize a business opportunity we can’t get otherwise.”

The push by ESPN to gain new visitors to its Web site is mainly a business effort; ESPN.com generates more than 13 million unique visitors a month but recently has seen a decline in visitors and is neck and neck with Foxsports.com in popularity. ESPN also has been searching for new writers since the unexpected deaths of columnists Hunter Thompson in 2005 and Ralph Wiley in 2004.

Some ESPN contributors still hold full-time jobs in other fields. Joe Lunardi, for instance, works in the communications department at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia while being paid by ESPN to help predict the field of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. He had done “bracketology” work on the side while working for the “Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook” before being noticed by ESPN about five years ago.

“I’d like to say that it was some grand scheme on my part, but I’m not that good of a businessman,” Lunardi said. “I’m not that good of a master planner. I stumbled into them, and they stumbled into me.”

As for whether he would consider becoming a full-time “bracketologist”: “I’ve thought about it but rarely for any serious length of time because I like my real job and I find that relaxing in the offseason works for me.”

In the case of Talented Mr. Roto, site founder Matthew Berry not only sold his Web site but has been hired by ESPN to help formulate the company’s overall fantasy sports strategy.

“I never wanted to go the corporate route,” said Berry, who had made a living as the Talented Mr. Roto since 1999. “I had turned down other overtures because it didn’t interest me. This was my hobby, but things just kept snowballing. I totally believe I have the best job in the world. I’m the envy of all my friends.”

ESPN does have its drawbacks. The company has been turned down by some writers who felt a move to ESPN would amount to “selling out,” and others have rejected ESPN’s advances out of fear the company would stifle their creativity.

Bill Simmons, who writes the popular “Sports Guy” column on ESPN.com, said he has constantly battled with the company over creative freedom since being hired in 2001. Previously, he wrote independently online as the “Boston Sports Guy,” where he gained a loyal following by riffing on the sports teams and figures from his hometown.

Simmons agreed to write for a more national audience and to tone down some of his content — particularly the criticism of television networks and announcers — to appease ESPN, but it wasn’t easy.

“For the first five years it was a real creative battle, and it was really frustrating for me at times,” Simmons said. “About a year ago I was hitting a wall, to a degree. They just needed to realize that it was 2007 and the rules were different. The important thing was that they worked it out.”

Simmons’ recently signed a new deal with ESPN that gives him more creative freedom in his column and also allows him to work in other capacities at the company, including being involved in original programming.

Abbott, meanwhile, said he recently got his first taste of ESPN when he began blogging about an article on Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash that appeared in Playboy Magazine. In the past, Abbott might have linked to the article; now doing so was against the rules.

But Abbott said the Playboy example was an isolated incident and that any restrictions are balanced by greater resources and access. He expects TrueHoop will feature more photos and video, for example, and he will get to travel to some major sporting events instead of watching them at home.

ESPN officials insisted that they impose few restrictions on writers and said most new contributors are more than happy to partner with the company.

“There have been instances where writers might feel like being with us is too restrictive,” Kosner said. “ESPN is what it is. We don’t apologize. I’d say the vast majority of them like the exposure, especially if they find they can continue to do what they’re doing.”

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