Like Rome, ESPN wasn't built in a day. The empire we know today was seven years old and straining to make a profit in 1987 when it entered TV sports' big leagues by acquiring rights to NFL games. In May sportsline.com—in its seventh year of operation and attracting two thirds the visitors of the sports leader on the Web, espn.com—was hoping for a similar lift when its parent, Sportsline.com Inc., joined Viacom and AOL Time Warner (SI's parent) in a successful $110 million bid for the rights to produce nfl.com for five years. "There's no question that we made [producing nfl.com] a target," says Joe Ferreira, Sportsline.com's vice president of programming.
The deal has helped both sites. This season nfl.com has been upgraded significantly. In addition to offering real-time scores and statistics, and (unlike baseball and the NBA's official sites) free links to the radio broadcasts of both teams involved in any game, nfl.com last week introduced live play-by-play. Another of the site's play-by-play features, the statistics-laden GameDay Live!, requires the Shockwave 8.5 plug-in; we found it fun, though sometimes frustratingly slow to load. Not unexpectedly, there isn't much hard-edged journalism on a site owned by the league, but the nfl.com home page includes links to sportsline.com stories that can be less than flattering.
The most recent Nielsen Net Ratings of sports sites—for the week ending on Sept. 30—showed sportsline.com, with 1.86 million unique visitors (defined as those viewing the site one or more times), surging ahead of third-place espn.com (1.54 million) and finishing second, to nfl.com (2.05 million). Sportsline.com's number of visitors may grow in the next Nielsen Net Ratings, because on Oct. 7 the NFL site matched its biggest Sunday to date, with 2.2 million unique visitors.