LONDON – As sports events go, the monthlong World Cup championships have no equal for soccer fans. For Internet firms, the trick is to find a way to cash in on the global frenzy.
The technological stamp on this year's event in South Korea and Japan will be clear. Some Internet executives are calling the tournament the first "Internet World Cup" as tens of millions of fans are expected to log on daily to check scores, stats and commentary.
"Amazon has its Christmases. For us, this is 10 Christmases rolled into one," said Tom Jessiman, managing director of London-based specialist news site Sports.com (http://www.sports.com), adding that a strong showing by one of the big European nations would help to ensure that its investment pays off.
News vendors are also planning to offer updates to mobile phone handsets via the text messaging services which have become so popular since the last World Cup four years ago.
Sites covering the tournament will have one major advantage over France, the host country in 1998, at least for European fans -- the time difference from the venue in South Korea and Japan.
Matches will be held during the start of the working day in Europe and in the middle of the night in North America and South America, making the Internet a preferred medium to keep on top of the action, online executives believe.
Reuters itself is sending a team of 190, the news agency's largest-ever contingent for a World Cup event, to cover all 64 games of the tournament.
The company is one of many major media organizations that intends to send updates to fans via the Net and mobile phones, informing them of key action such as a missed penalty kick or a player sent off the field with a red card.
Some relative newcomers to sports are trying to exploit the hype, too. German ISP T-Online will run live chats, replete with video, of the German national team during the tournament. And British rival Freeserve has purchased a Reuters news feed that includes live results.
GAMBLED AND LOST
San Francisco-based online firm Quokka Sports bet its future on the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and lost. Saddled with enormous debt from covering the event, the Nasdaq-listed firm went bust only a few months after the close of the Games.
"Quokka" is a name spoken in hushed tones in sports circles these days. It has become a reminder that building and maintaining sites that can accommodate millions of fans is a costly venture, one that cannot be entirely funded by advertising and sponsorships.
U.S. Internet company Yahoo! says it has learned from the harsh lessons of Quokka. In partnership with world soccer governing body FIFA, Yahoo has built the official site http://www.FifaWorldCup.Yahoo.com.
"We would not have entered this relationship if we had the view that it wouldn't become profitable," Fru Hazlitt, European sales and marketing director at Yahoo, told Reuters. "The plan is to break even on this, and if possible, to make some money."
To that end, Yahoo has introduced an Internet first: The company is charging fans $19.95 to view video highlights, delayed three hours, of all 64 matches.
The lion's share of revenues is still in the form of advertising from companies such as MasterCard, Anheuser-Busch brewery and Motorola. Sponsorship deals on the site run as high as $1 million, officials said.
Hazlitt said she expects the site to register four billion to five billion page views, or more than three times the traffic the official site registered for the 1998 tournament.
SCORING WITH SMS
Sports.com is hoping Europeans' addiction to text messages will prove to be a money-spinner.
It has teamed with France's No. 2 cellphone group SFR and TIM, Italy's largest mobile phone operator, to bring their customers match updates in SMS (short message service) format.
Jessiman said he expects the company's main site to draw 15 million unique visitors during the tournament, far and away it's best showing.
With a successful World Cup, the 3-year-old firm, backed by SportsLine.com and sports marketing and athlete management firm, International Management Group, could break even for the first time, Jessiman added.
To manage the anticipated traffic swell, Sports.com has contracted third-party server firms to provide the site with extra capacity to guard against site outages.
Keynote Systems, a U.S. technology firm that measures Web site performance, warned that even the most popular Web sites have been slowed by huge surges in traffic, a scenario that could be repeated during the height of the tournament.
A technological hiccup, though, will be of little consolation to a fan desperate to catch the score of the always highly charged England-Argentina match. They'll move on to another site, no doubt, and may never return -- a price no Web site operator can absorb.