Does It Matter That CBSSports.com Does Not Really Exist?
by Christopher Byrne
Publisher, Eye on Sports Media
October 31, 2008
In the world of new media, branding is everything. The question becomes how do you approach the branding from the broadcasting side of the house, especially when it involves a major re-branding of the type that CBS Sports is going through with its online presence once known as sportsline.com? The answer is not always as simple as throwing a switch or pushing a button.
In 1994, Sportsline USA was founded. In 1995, they became established online as Sportsline.com, with a URL of www.sportsline.com. In doing so, they were one of the pioneers in developing a web presence, leapfrogging many other sports sites in the process. In 1997, the company entered into a marketing agreement with CBS Sports to promote the broadcast offerings on the network. As part of this deal CBS Sports began marketing “cbs.sportsline.com.”
In 2004, CBS Sports decided to acquire SportsLine.com. As time progressed, it became apparent that the SportsLine brand and service needed to be more closely aligned with CBS Sports and thus the idea to rebrand the service “CBSSports.com” was born.“We reached the conclusion that this kind of addressing confused users,” said Patrick Herde, CBSSports.com Vice-President of Marketing and Product Management, in a telephone interview. “They were used to seeing a ‘www’ in the address, so the branding did not work the way we wanted. So we started backing away from that way of addressing it.”
In the world of new media, this is not necessarily a good thing as the branding of a URL is seen as a key component of a new media marketing and branding strategy. An example of an absolute failure to do this correctly can be found with Fry’s Electronics. Fry’s is a company fiercely proud of their reputation as a ‘brick and mortar’ store, and they never had an online presence. People in the technical world certainly took notice when Fry’s became a title sponsor of the PGA Tour’s Frys.com Open event in Las Vegas in 2006. The only problem was that there was no such web site, and people who entered the web site address were redirected to OutPost.com, with absolutely no Fry’s branding. As such, Fry’s may not have gotten as much value from their sponsorship of the event as they would have liked (note that their sponsorship has moved to the recent PGA Tour event in Arizona, and the site is fully branded from top to bottom).
In order to address the branding issue in 2007, CBS Sports launched an aggressive re-branding effort on the site and on the air, pushing the new web address of “CBSSports.com”. "The ability to bring unity to the CBS Sports brand across all media - television, online and mobile - is something we believe both audiences and advertisers will appreciate," said Sean McManus, President, CBS Sports and News in an August 22, 2007 press release. "With this name change, CBS Sports now stands for much more than its broadcasts of major sporting events. We now have a direct branding association with interactive coverage across the entire world of sports for our fans."
on-air marketingof the CBSSports.com brand.
There is only one problem with this though. 15 months later, while the content of the site is clearly branded as CBSSports.com, the URL being marketed is not something that currently displays to users, as it redirects to ‘www.sportsline.com’. But it is not alone, as the other networks' marketed URLs also redirect. Unlike CBS Sports, each of the these networks with the exception of ABC Sports has the network brand as part of the URL.
|Media Outlet||URL As Marketed||Resolves To|
So why hasn’t CBS Sports just thrown a switch to have cbssports.com become the main domain? “It all comes down to technical issues,” said Tony Fernandez, CBSSports.com Vice-President of Technology. “There are all kinds of issues associated with re-branding of the site that could adversely impact the user experience. Much of our site depends on session and persistent cookies that sit on the users personal computers. If we had just thrown the switch, the user experience they were used to would stop working, and we would be inundated with calls and emails.”
“We will be making the domain switch in January 2009,” Herde said. In order to address what is normally done a normal technology rollout or change, CBSSports.com will be working behind the scenes and under the hood to make the transition as seamless and transparent to users as possible. “We will have prominent but brief notices on the web site to let users know what is happening, but there should not be a need to go into too much detail because of the way we will be making the change,” Herde added.
This means that if users have bookmarked a page or other content contained on the site currently, it will automatically do a URL substitution rule to open the content the way they think they have bookmarked or saved it. For users of sports media sites, this would be a welcome change as those sites often moved content and/or change site addresses without any kind of redirection or link to the new location.
"Our user demographics generally tend to be more educated and have higher incomes than other major sports sites," said Herde. "A majority of our rabid fantasy sports players pay to play with CBSSports.com because we have such a reliable service and we are proud of our reliability rankings among all fantasy sports providers. In short, we have a higher set of expectations to meet. Our goal with the re-branding is to provide an even better experience for our users, advertisers and partners."
Tied into this is search engine optimization (SEO) and search ranking. If the change is not carefully planned out and done correctly, there is a business risk that the site could lose visibility it has gained over the years. A possible unintended consequence could be lost referrals to the site from search engines, as well as reduced advertising revenue.
For a smaller company or a start-up company, having the brand in the URL is probably more important than it is to CBS Sports. “CBS Sports is one of the biggest brand names in the broadcast business,’ says sports marketing expert Pat Coyle of Coyle Media. “So it may not matter what they call the site as long has they have the brand to market.”
Joe Favorito, former Vice-President of Public Relations for the New York Knicks and author of Sports Publicity: A Practical Approach, takes this thought further. “The CBS brand, like the other majors, are hallmarks that transcend just sports,” says Favorito, now a media brand consultant. “These adjustments to pull under one roof are short term problems for long term brand gain. If they were smaller emerging brands looking to hold on to a space or be lost in the shuffle it would be a much bigger problem. However they have the benefit of millions of eyes every weekend to communicate the transition smoothly.”
Does a convergence of media platforms at CBS Sports mean a whole new level of participation from talent and staff from CBS Sports and CBS College Sports Network? A recent conversation with ESPN College football analyst Todd Blackledge (pictured left) before the ESPN broadcast of the Alabama - Georgia football game on September 27, offered some insight that might foretell what the future holds at CBS Sports. “Being an analyst is an easy job no matter what network you are broadcasting from. The main difference with ESPN is that I have a lot more responsibilities to the other platforms. It may mean appearances on shows or writing for ESPN.com,” said Blackledge. “It really is a very different approach than I had been used to.”
Readers of the CBSSports.com site are already seeing evidence of this convergence. NFL Studio analyst Charlie Casserly is writing for the site, as is Leslie Visser. The site is posting video game recaps from the network. There is also convergence between the Fantasy sports sites with other parts of the CBS Sports family.
The past two years have seen a lot of positive changes for visitors to the CBS Sports web site, no matter what it is or will be called in the future. Fans can now watch any game of the annual NCAA Tournament for free, as well as weekly broadcasts of the CBS Sports broadcasts of Southeastern Conference football.
It does not mean that there are not challenges to face for CBSSports.com. Like all of the other sports media web sites, CBS Sports is targeting the elusive 18 to 49 year old male demographic segment. As the two corporate cultures (SportsLine and CBS) grow together as time goes on, decisions will have to be made on how to attract the target demographic without compromising the corporate values of the CBS Corporation. And make no bones about it, executive management does care, and will fight hard to protect the corporate image.
Before CBS Sports broadcast Mixed Martial Arts for the first time last May, Sumner Redstone, Chairman of CBS and Viacom, was less than pleased, as reported in various media outlets:
Redstone said the deal, struck with Elite Xtreme Combat, probably was a mistake, not because CBS won't turn a profit from it but because it is not "socially responsible" to air the typically bloody bouts on free, broadcast TV. "I'm a lover not a fighter,” said Redstone. "I don't like the sport."
But Ed Goren, president of Fox Sports, was more direct, telling an audience of 200 that he didn't pursue a relationship with ultimate fighting because, "We don't need money that badly.”
The problem here is that most people, including this author, associated the mixed martial arts broadcasts as CBS Sports properties. “MMA on CBS was not a sports buy, it was an entertainment buy,” says Favorito. “Sports had nothing to do with it. The shows were produced by Elite XS, and they were crewed with the same crew that did the Showtime Network shows, with the exception of the talent.”
For many, it was hard to make the distinction. The broadcasts were publicized through the CBS Sports section of the CBS Media relations site, although the publicity contacts were not for the CBS Sports publicity staff. With CBS Sports play-by-play man Gus Johnson sitting in role of the primary announcer, the line between sports and entertainment becomes blurred because of the convergence. In fact, the initial release spoke to the importance of CBSSports.com in the now defunct-partnership with Elite XC.
Not all marketing cross-marketing ideas turn to gold. How this will all turn out in the end remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure. CBS Sports may be late to the game in branding their URL. Come January 2009 they will be the only major network sports website whose branding matches the web site URL.
Todd Blackledge Photograph Copyright 2008 by Eye on Sports Media/The Cayuga Group, LLC. All Rights Reserved.