Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Need a fantasy football fix? Facebook may be the new place to get it.

Sports on the Internet long has been dominated by major Web sites ESPN.com, Foxsports.com and Yahoo! Sports, but a plethora of small companies - many with hefty financial backing and experienced management teams - have emerged to deliver fantasy games and other sports content to social networking sites, including Facebook and MySpace.

The new applications are a clear attempt to find sports fans in places they already gather and are expected to provide direct competition to some of the more established sports portals on the Web.

“If fantasy sports started today, they’d be a better fit for social networking sites,” said Mark Haubner, vice president of Seattle-based Atomic Moguls, which offers a host of sports applications for Facebook, MySpace and Bebo. “We’re just trying to bring games to where people are.”

Facebook and MySpace are ranked among the top 10 Web sites in the world with more than 100 million unique users a month, outpacing even the most popular sports Web portals. Other social networking sites, including Bebo, Orkut and hi5, also are growing in popularity. In most instances, these social networking sites allow for outside programmers to write applications catered to certain groups of users; sports applications are among the fastest growing. There are fantasy games for nearly every league and conference, fan groups for nearly every team and applications with news and statistics.

”ESPN is the sports information leader, and they do a great job,” said Mike Kerns, founder and CEO of Citizen Sports, which offers more than 600 sports applications, including a new fantasy football game with Sports Illustrated. “But what we found, in our opinion, is that more and more people are going to [fewer] sites. The companies in the next generation that will stand to benefit are those that direct their information to where most people spend their time. We’re really working to create what I call a horizontally directed sports information company but all within social networking.”

The companies offering these applications are hardly ragtag operations. Atomic Moguls’ Haubner was a former producer at ESPN.com and NBA.com, and the company’s founder, Brenda Spoonmore, also was an NBA executive. The company is backed with millions of dollars in investment from Second Avenue Venture Partners, whose founder, Mike Slade, helped launch ESPN.com more than a decade ago.

Citizen Sports, meanwhile, is led by Kerns, a former chief of staff for Steinberg & Moorad Sports Management, and Jeff Ma, a former options trader who gained fame as a member of the notorious Massachusetts Institute of Technology blackjack team. Its board of directors includes former San Francisco 49ers tight end Brent Jones and Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Jeff Moorad.

The largest sports sites have dabbled in social networking, offering ways for fans to communicate and interact on their sites, but have only a limited number of applications on Facebook, MySpace and other sites. CBS Sportsline partnered with Facebook on its NCAA tournament bracket challenge last season with mixed reviews. ESPN has quietly developed several applications, including a fantasy game called “Fight for the Top” and another program that provides news feeds about users’ favorite teams.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether companies like Citizen Sports and Atomic Moguls can lure new fantasy sports users, who are notoriously loyal to larger providers, specifically Yahoo! and ESPN. But at the very least, the emergence of these companies also marks a shift in the quality of sports applications on Facebook and other sites. Until recently, most sports-related programs have been relatively simple and often flawed.

”I think they’re smart to be doing this,” said Nick O’Neil, publisher of the independent Web site allfacebook.com. “Most of the other sports [applications] have been put together by one or two programmers.”

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