SI Vault
John O'Keefe
October 15, 2001
In the first weeks of the season,'s innovations on have paid off for both sites
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October 15, 2001

Early Foot

In the first weeks of the season,'s innovations on have paid off for both sites

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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—in its seventh year of operation and attracting two thirds the visitors of the sports leader on the Web,—was hoping for a similar lift when its parent, Inc., joined Viacom and AOL Time Warner (SI's parent) in a successful $110 million bid for the rights to produce for five years. "There's no question that we made [producing] a target," says Joe Ferreira,'s vice president of programming.

The deal has helped both sites. This season 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, 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 home page includes links to stories that can be less than flattering.

The most recent Nielsen Net Ratings of sports sites—for the week ending on Sept. 30—showed, with 1.86 million unique visitors (defined as those viewing the site one or more times), surging ahead of third-place (1.54 million) and finishing second, to (2.05 million).'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.