By Lindsay Toler
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Three years ago Siegel, a 23-year-old native of Woodcliff, New Jersey, began operating NJHoopsnet.com, a Web site devoted to his beloved New Jersey Nets of the National Basketball Association. A short time later, Siegel began using his site as a platform to pontificate on the fortunes of Rutgers and Seton Hall, two prominent Garden State collegiate programs.
Then Siegel saw a much larger void.
"There was an opening for a site devoted to college basketball commentary in general," says Siegel. "And I figured that site could be mine."
So Siegel quickly snapped up the domain name, collegehoopsnet.com, and set to the task of organically building a guerilla network of two dozen volunteer "correspondents" nationwide to provide his site with punchy commentary and statistical analysis on programs large and small.
"I was really surprised," says Siegel, who hopes to become a sports agent after he earns his law degree. "Other sports are closed, but for whatever reason, there was a huge gap."
That vacuum has translated into cold cash for Siegel, who expects to surpass $45,000 in revenues this year after clearing $12,000 in 2004. These profits are generated through advertising agreements with the likes of the ticket broker Ticket Solutions, university apparel retailer Team Fanshop and the search engine Google.
While Siegel's agreement with Ticket Solutions resembles a traditional advertiser-to-publisher relationship, Team Fanshop pays Siegel on a commission basis, cutting him in on a percentage of each sale generated from their ads on his site. Google, meanwhile, acts as a middleman between Siegel and advertisers who pay the search engine to strategically place ads on sites it considers to be synergistic -- and, therefore, potentially profitable -- with a given product or service. Siegel receives a dime or so on the half-dollar for every click on a Google-sited ad, purchase or no purchase.
"I do pretty well for someone who's in law school," says Siegel, who abandoned plans to go to Florida for spring break in order to prep his site for March Madness. "I see myself making a consistent income off this site for a long time."
What has made Siegel's site so attractive to advertisers and viewers alike is a milieu of focus, networking and nomenclature. For starters, college basketball fans' craving for Web content has proven to be virtually insatiable.
"There seems to be no limit to the amount of information alums want and feel they need," says Russell Adams, who covers Internet issues for Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal. "The other is that, generally, the people you're drawing to these kinds of sites are hardcore fans who go as deep as possible -- and that makes the sites that much more attractive to advertisers."
But content is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to attracting fans to a sports Web site, of which there are thousands. If you type in the words "college basketball" in a Google query, collegehoopsnet.com is the third link from the top, just below links to ESPN.com and CNNSI.com. This fortuitous positioning is based on Google's Page Rank formulator, which bases its "ranking" of a site largely upon how many other sites link to it.
And, last but not least, there's the sweet, simple genius of Siegel's straightforward domain name.
"He bought a great name," says Glenn Nelson, editor-in-chief of Seattle-based Scout.com, a leading national network of team-based and recruiting Web sites. "Half the battle is being found -- maybe more than half the battle. People type in 'college hoops' and get his site. He's got a potential gold mine just based on his domain."
Nelson's rosy prognosis is to be taken with a tinge of caution: In 1999 Nelson, an award-winning NBA beat writer, left his job with the Seattle Times to take a supervisory position with a burgeoning Seattle sports Internet company called Rivals.com (Editor's note: Mike Seely worked with Nelson at Rivals.com for six months in 2000). Awash with speculative investor capital at the crest of the West Coast Internet boom, Rivals, like so many new technology outfits at the time, saw its promissory wave crash to shore at the snap of the stock market's whimsical finger. Massive layoffs and corporate restructuring ensued, with Rivals founder Jim Heckman and a handful of employees -- including Nelson -- splitting off from the parent company (now based in Tennessee) to form Scout.com (originally called TheInsiders.com).
According to SportsBusiness Journal's Adams, both Scout.com and the slimmed-down Rivals have learned well the sober lessons of the bubble's first burst: "Those two companies are doing unbelievably well," says Adams. "In January, Nielsen reported that Rivals had over 200 million page views, and Scout.com is second to ESPN for average time per visitor spent on their site (each ESPN visitor averages an hour per visit; while Scout.com visitors average 44 minutes). The term they use for that is 'stickiness,' which is arguably more important than the number of unique visitors to a site."
Siegel's site averages some 12,000 unique visitors per day, and reached a peak of 30,000 on March 14. While Adams notes that these figures are extremely impressive for a one-man, volunteer-driven operation, they do not meet Nielsen's minimum threshold for "stickiness" tracking. As a substitute gauge, Siegel offers that his average visitor clicks on 3.5 pages per visit nowadays, up from an average of 2.6 last March.
While sites like Rivals and Scout.com devote significant bandwidth to high school recruiting, team-specific editorial content and community building (i.e., message boards), collegehoopsnet.com's bread and butter is an editorial mix of provocative armchair quarterbacking and NBA draft forecasting, the latter of which is a personal specialty of Siegel's that Adams finds slightly confounding.
"You don't see that link as often as you see the high school-to-college link," says Adams. "Most avid college sports fans connect the NBA with the dilution of the college product."
Siegel also bucks common wisdom by devoting as little space as possible to media darlings like Duke and the University of North Carolina, instead focusing on dogged coverage of mid-major programs like Western Michigan, the Ivy League and the hoops nexus of Cincinnati, recently named America's best college basketball city by The Sporting News.
"We're not that interested in the bigger guys," says Siegel, "but you have to write about them."
Some of collegehoops.net's more prolific correspondents don't seem to mind that they write for free, instead expressing gratitude to Siegel for providing them with a creative outlet and heightened exposure in an increasingly crowded and democratic electronic journalism landscape.
"Writing about office parks and highway extensions bored me," says Bob Kintner, a onetime contributor to the Cincinnati Business Courier who covers all of Ohio for Siegel from his apartment in Queen City's idyllic Hyde Park neighborhood. "Occasionally, I'll do something exclusively for Shawn, but I send most of my stuff out to about nine Web sites besides Shawn's. My ultimate goal is to be read by as many people as possible, so that when I write books, people will remember me and buy them." (Kintner, who goes by the Web handle "Cigar Boy," is currently working on a book about college arenas.)
Then there are contributors like Dan Curry, a North Hollywood, California, firefighter who, while pining for a venue to write about West Coast hoops, stumbled upon Siegel's site. In the course of their e-mail correspondence, Curry revealed that he had developed a computerized formula for predicting not only the winners of individual games, but also teams' records over the course of an entire season. Instantly sold on the concept, Siegel dubbed this mechanism -- which places statistical priority on strength of schedule and margin of victory -- the DCI (for "Dan Curry Index"), and the firefighter has been calling his shots on collegehoopsnet.com ever since.
With his bank statements as his witness, Siegel has learned that such spates of serendipity create as viable a blueprint as any for entrepreneurial success in the wide world of sports' Internet.
"Except for major media companies, that's how it works," says Scout.com's Nelson. "Guys just start doing something because they're passionate about it, and they turn it into a little business."