The IOC gives the Web a sporting chance

Olympic coverage is traditionally dominated by offline media - but the IOC has accredited two Web sites to cover the Winter Olympics

The race by the online sports media for official recognition has almost been won, as two of its players this week get ready to strut their stuff in front of the world by covering the Winter Olympic Games. But, as ZDNet Australia found out, the competition from traditional media outlets remains fierce.

The online sports media is set to receive a boost this week when Sportal.com and Sports.com will use official International Olympic Committee (IOC) accreditation to cover the 2002 Winter games from Salt Lake City. In a sector dominated by global players -- TV heavyweights such as the BBC, NBC and News Corp, as well as newspapers and hundreds of sports magazines -- getting to cover (albeit not broadcast) any major sporting event is a big achievement.

Online players have never received IOC accreditation until now. This coverage should be seen as a major milestone in the slow process of gaining credibility for online sports media. But how did they get to this stage? Are traditional sports media and their fresh-faced online rivals operating on a level playing field?

According to Gavin Chittick, CFO at Sports.com, "establishment" governing bodies like the IOC prefer to stick with the proven players rather than "young Internet upstarts".

Giants like NBC can provide a track record and wallet size that online sports media can only dream about -- a massive portion of the $2.6bn in revenue the Sydney Olympics garnered came from the US broadcaster. In contrast, online sports media have to rely on lobbying and strategic alliances to gain a seat at the top table of sports coverage. For example, Sports.com built and maintained the French Olympic Committee's Sydney 2000 Web site -- and was paid £1m for doing so. The respect they gained within the IOC as a whole did as much as anything to get them Winter Olympics accreditation. So they can't broadcast any action from the Games -- but that would be a miracle at this stage.

Sports.com rival Sportal.com has put up its own brave fight. The young company is rumoured to have paid UEFA £10m to sponsor the Euro 2000 football championships and get a foothold in the market. The Sportal-branded www.euro2000.org was extremely popular but whether this gamble will pay off has yet to be seen.

Technology is a big issue. In the long run, new media companies will have to find other ways of impressing sports governing bodies. From the broadcasting point of view it's a Catch-22 situation. The IOC won't make online sports companies a realistic offer until a track record of content provision is there. And that depends on the success and availability of broadband access technologies.

Right now, not enough people have broadband to make delivery of events user-friendly and of suitable quality.

It's no surprise, then, given FIFA's recent decision not to broadcast 2002 World Cup football matches via the Internet, that PA and Sports.com have moved to offer alternative Internet coverage. Both Web sites will be providing live text-based commentaries and statistics during matches.

For the time being, the likes of Sportal.com and Sports.com are happy just to get to go to the 2002 Winter Olympics and if that goes well accreditation at the summer games two years later will surely be a formality.

The Internet can only increase exposure to major sporting events. At the same time, it could also destroy the value of the TV rights that bankroll global sporting events.

As the technology improves and Web audience figures grow, the question becomes how long internet upstarts will be able to accept playing second fiddle to the BBCs and NBCs of this world? The future size of their respective wallets will probably hold the key to that.


For everything Internet-related, from the latest legal and policy-related news, to domain name updates, see ZDNet UK's Internet News Section.

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