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Web’s ‘wrecking cyclone’ could be hesitancy to give ads proper space

Web’s ‘wrecking cyclone’ could be hesitancy to give ads proper space

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In his 1954 autobiography, legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice offered a perspective on the relatively new medium of television that Web marketers might want to consider. He described TV's appearance in the 1940s: "Within a few short years this cloud was a raging storm, spearheaded by a wrecking cyclone," — this is Grantland Rice, after all — "[striking] two of the country's most popular sports — baseball and football — with a devastating crash." Rice said that TV nearly ruined the minor leagues, cut into major league attendance and "only Notre Dame could sell out in the face of TV's power."

What was going on? "It was the old story of trying to sell something and give away the same product for nothing. ... As television sets increased, football and baseball attendances started dropping," Rice wrote.

But the answer was found from within, when TV had actually generated enough traffic to sell ads. "It became an ally when it began to fund the cost of sports," said consultant Neal Pilson. "Sports turned to TV to pay the ever-increasing costs of operation, which in turn fed the costs." Which fed the impulse to televise more games.

"Sports is more secure today in American life than in the 1940s, and if you look at a sport like the NBA or NASCAR or the NFL, you don't for a minute think TV has had a damaging effect," Pilson said.

The turning point was when networks realized the revenue potential of the new medium, when they asked advertisers to pay the freight and viewers to put up with ads. This is a tradeoff we happily make, and the fanfare surrounding the Super Bowl ad lineup and individual spots like Bud Light's "Whazzup!" indicates ads can be more than an annoyance.

Does the history of the Web point to the same patterns — of publishers leveraging the traffic for ad revenue and asking users to accept necessary advertising, and advertisers taking pains to make ads memorable and effective? Not entirely.

Even the biggest general sports news sites don't come near the traffic of the AOLs and Yahoo!s, and smaller sites, such as team sites, generate far less still. So huge banner-ad sales are out of the question.

But Web marketers should ask themselves these questions: Are we asking enough from our users in return for the scads of free information we provide? Are we assuming we can't ask more, solely based on our traffic? Are we underestimating our users' dependence on our services?

To be more specific: Are sports Web sites sure that their users won't accept larger and more prominently placed ads? Despite plenty of evidence that users ignore banner ads, sites still work hard to sell them. They're small, often hard to read and usually placed at the edge of the page. By contrast, television ads fill the screen for minutes and print ads fill pages or command almost equal billing with editorial.

Ads in popular TV shows and better magazines command a higher percentage of the available real estate than tiny banners placed delicately on a Web page. Consumers take this for granted, and in cases like the Super Bowl, or the ads in Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine, they become part of the whole experience. Why are Web marketers so timid about demanding more?

Many Web marketers say, "Well, interstitials are on their way." But interstitials, full-page ads that appear when clicking from one page of editorial content to another, aren't widespread, aren't for every advertiser and aren't for every modem. Meanwhile, time is passing. Web marketers are heartened by signs that the Web is becoming ingrained in the sports fans' habits, but they seem unconcerned that users could be developing unrealistic expectations for nearly ad-free pages, which no medium can live with for long. Consider minor league sports , which have always regretted getting fans hooked on free or cut-rate seats.

Sports Web sites are beginning to ask more from their users in the way of personal data. When a site rolls out a new feature or makes its fantasy games free, it now asks for a handful of personal details in return, which helps hook advertisers. In other words, Web sites are realizing their strong position with respect to their users. Couldn't the same be done with ads? Why not sell a prominent home-page sponsorship to one company, anchored by a 21ΒΌ2-inch-square, attractive, clever ad?

Unthinkable? That's what people said when USA Today sold its top corners.

Noah Liberman can be reached at nliberman@amcity.com.

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