- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2008

As college football’s best get ready for battle in the August heat, fans increasingly may turn to ESPN for even the most minute details on their favorite players and teams, from an injury to a freshman center at Ohio State to a kicking controversy at Kentucky.

Quietly over the last year, ESPN has forged relationships with some of the most popular team-dedicated sites on the Internet, offering to share its own content while using the sites to broaden its audience at ESPN.com.

ESPN is expected to have “affiliate” deals with 17 sites by the beginning of the upcoming college football season and is in talks with as many as a dozen more. It hopes to build a roster of more than 50 sites by next year.

The relationships are essentially content-sharing partnerships with no money exchanging hands. The sites, with names like TheBigSpur.com, Bucknuts.com and GatorCountry.com, are expected to keep their independent identities.

“They have a lot of the content we need to bring to our readers, and they need a national scale,” said David Geaslen, ESPN’s vice president of high school sports and recruiting. “We have a lot of the national data, but who we were missing were the fans who wanted to see what some of these kids were doing each and every week.”

By affiliating with these sites, ESPN can direct its readers to local stories on those schools’ programs that it couldn’t afford to cover. Most of the sites feature football and men’s basketball coverage, though some have incorporated baseball.

Meanwhile, site owners can use ESPN stories and video and are permitted to cite ESPN’s proprietary polls and recruiting rankings.

At the moment, most sites with ESPN affiliations are dedicated to programs with rabid fan bases, including most SEC schools, Ohio State, Miami, Southern California and Oklahoma. Maryland and Virginia Tech sites are expected to join the network by 2009.

“They want to be able to promote ESPN at the grassroots level, and we want to be able to share our content,” said Lee Schear, the publisher of Ohio State site Bucknuts.com, who has helped organize many of the affiliate sites into a network. “Our stuff goes up to them, their stuff goes down to us.”

ESPN’s partnership with these sites would appear to be a direct hit to one of its main competitors. Several of the sites now affiliated with ESPN were once partners with Scout.com, a network of more than 200 sites affiliated with Fox Interactive Media and Fox Sports. Sites devoted to Ohio State, Florida, Southern California and Oklahoma left Scout.com last year and formed the Team Sports Network, first operating independently and then later approaching ESPN.

Those sites that departed from Scout.com were involved in a class action lawsuit against their former partners, claiming improper accounting of revenue and inadequate technological support. Site operators declined to discuss specifics of the case because a settlement is pending, but some said they moved to ESPN in part because they were offered more independence and shared content.

“We felt we could do some things, multimedia-wise, that Scout couldn’t provide,” said Christopher Stock, a former writer for Scout.com’s Miami Hurricanes site, who now publishes InsidetheU.com, an ESPN affiliate. “We have a lot more creative control now.”

Scout.com executives said they are not concerned about ESPN entering the market, calling it “a validation” of Scout’s position.

“There’s always going to be an ebb and flow,” said Jeff Husvar, general manager of Scout Media. “We take our relationships seriously, so of course when they leave it’s a concern of ours. But we feel really good about our existing partners.”

Husvar declined to address the specifics of the lawsuit but said the company is working on a strategic plan to improve the capabilities and performance of its sites.

ESPN, meanwhile, appears to use the college sites as part of a broader involvement with amateur sports. In 2006, ESPN bolstered its coverage of the NFL and NBA drafts by acquiring national scouting organization Scouts Inc. Last month it announced a deal to acquire Student Sports Inc., a group that publishes several high school-oriented sports Web sites and events including the Elite 11 and Nike Combines football camps. Later this year, ESPN will launch a new high school and recruiting-based Web site ESPNrise.com.

“This is a perfect complement to what we were already doing,” Geaslen said.

Traffic to the sites vary; some require a subscription, and others don’t. Bucknuts.com has 6,000 subscribers and has recorded as many as 1 million page views in a single day. InsidetheU.com, a year-old Miami site, has 650 subscribers. Operators said they expect traffic to increase as a result of the relationship with ESPN, which recorded 20.6 million unique visitors in June, compared with 14 million for FoxSports.com.

The operators of the new affiliate sites said they entered the relationship with ESPN with caution because of the company’s size and influence. Operators were particularly careful to avoid ceding editorial control, agreeing only to a basic code of journalistic conduct. But for now, they have no complaints.

“We run our own show,” GatorCountry.com executive director Buddy Martin said.

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