The Critical 'I'

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Monday, August 02, 2004

SPORTSLINE.COM FINALLY BOUGHT
Unable to stay in the race to be the Number 1 Also-Ran to ESPN.com, SportsLine.com Inc. sold itself off to Viacom today for around $46 million.

Thanks to years of on-air promotion and a strictly-for-branding URL, I'm guessing most people just assumed that Viacom/CBS already owned SportsLine. But no, it's a wayward dot-com phenom that had managed to maintain a (largely) stand-alone existence, even though it's been on shaky ground since the turn of the century. The long-standing partnership with CBS was the only reason SportsLine survived this long.

The CBS-SportsLine relationship is interesting, in that it was a holdover from the early days of the commercialization of the Web. Back in the mid-to-late '90s, traditional media companies weren't completely sure about how to approach the online medium. While today it seems obvious to set up a familiarly-branded domain, establish appropriate advertising/content partnerships and dedicated Web resources, it wasn't all that clear in the beginning. Even ESPN's earliest online foray, ESPN SportsZone, was done in partnership with Paul Allen's Starwave, as a way to minimize investment into what might never have panned out (remember, this was still the era when AOL really did equal the Web, and charge-per-minute access was the norm; nothing was assured as far as the future of the Internet as a consumer medium).

This was the same thinking Viacom had when it opted to hop onto SportsLine's established online presence, rather than duplicating the efforts in starting up its own sports site. This philosophy was applied in Viacom's other early-stage online venture, CBS MarketWatch, which, similar to SportsLine's status until now, is centered around an independent company. One would think MarketWatch.com is in for a similar acquisitive fate. But the online financial news market is not dominated by a single brand quite as much as ESPN.com dominates online sports info/entertainment, so MarketWatch may stay it's course for a long while yet.

We'll see if this has any impact on the current hierarchy among major sports sites. I don't foresee anything changing soon, just as last year's Sporting News-Fox Sports online merger didn't affect the landscape.