Sports Illustrated online charging for premium content

Last week, SI.com, the online version of Sports Illustrated magazine, made some of its most popular online features, columnists and stories available only to paid subscribers of its print magazine.

The Web site has never carried all of the content from the print magazine, said Steve Robinson, managing editor of SI.com, but it has included some of its most popular writers and features. Now, premium content, including columns by Rick Reilly and Steve Rushin, as well as sports beat coverage from reporters including Peter King and Tom Verducci, will be available online only with a paid print subscription.

The free site will remain, Robinson said, and it will continue to include original content not usually found in the magazine. Subscribers of the print edition, however, will be able to see more of the weekly print edition appearing online a couple of days before the issues show up in their mailboxes, he said.

Sports Illustrated print subscribers will be able to log into the special area of the Web site, called SI Exclusive, by entering their subscriber numbers. Nonsubscribers can buy a subscription to the magazine online and gain immediate access to the exclusive content.

The new SI Exclusive section launched on Sept. 9, and while little feedback has been received so far, "the traffic's been good" on the site, Robinson said.

"We're going to build on it" by adding additional content and features in the future, he said.

The reason for the change, Robinson said, is to help cement the relationship between the print and online versions of the publication for readers. The Web site has been under the CNN.com banner since July 1997, and SI.com was launched on its own earlier this year and underwent a site redesign in last month, he said. Circulation of the print edition is about 3.2 million, but online visitor figures aren't released.

Subscribers can expect additional content from SI Exclusive, including a weekend preview section, large-image photo galleries and pictures from the past few years of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue. Two of the magazine's most popular sections, SI Adventure and Golf Plus, will also be available online exclusively to Sports Illustrated subscribers.

Analysts say the move will have to be watched to gauge its success.

"This is a model that content providers -- many of which were merely newspaper and magazine publishers a few years ago -- can understand and explain to their colleagues in their companies' financial departments," said Michael Dortch, an analyst at Robert Frances Group Inc. in Westport, Conn. "It's also one which consumers seem to have little if any problem, if the price is right, the site works as expected, and the content is what they want. If SI can't make it work, it won't be because the model is flawed."

Gene Alvarez, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said many publications are finding that they can't "give away the store online," then expect to sell print copies of their magazines and newspapers. "You're going to see more and more of these kinds of pay types of models. But it's not going to be a category-killer in my opinion."

The problem, Alvarez said, is that Web surfers looking for free content will likely move elsewhere in search of similar free content. It's not likely that visitors using the free content will subscribe to get the premium content, he said.

One benefit to SI.com, though, could be that if it can drive print subscribers to the Web site, then it could raise advertising revenue by being able to show higher readership online and off-line, he said.

Carol Baroudi, an analyst at Baroudi Bloor in Arlington, Mass., said SI.com's strategy means the company must believe it has content that readers are willing to pay to see. That may or may not be so online, she said.

"I don't find much content online that people are willing to pay for," Baroudi said. "There's such an abundance of content there" that people can go elsewhere rather than pay up.

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Todd R. Weiss

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