Web Sites

The Net Net

The Final Four on the Web.

I was jittery last week. Would he play or wouldn’t he? Would he or wouldn’t he?

By “he,” I mean, of course, University of Kentucky basketball star Derek Anderson, who blew out a knee a few months ago. The NCAA championship tournament had started, so I needed to know: Would Kentucky coach Rick Pitino let Anderson return to the court? All day, I combed sports Web sites for a rumor, a hint, a tea leaf to read. The more I looked, the gloomier I got. According to the SportsTicker, Anderson’s rehabbed knee was stronger than his undamaged one. The Sporting News reported that Anderson had gone to practice. Then the Sports Network quoted Pitino as saying Anderson had played better in practice than anyone else on the team. Finally, bingo! Pitino announced he wouldn’t risk Anderson’s pro career for the sake of this year’s tournament.

My Anderson frenzy might make sense if I were, say, a compulsive gambler who’d pawned his fiancee’s engagement ring to wager against Kentucky. But I have just $5 riding on the office tournament pool. The only explanations I can muster are that 1) I hate Kentucky basketball–Rick Pitino is so smooth it’s creepy and 2) this is the NCAA tournament, the be-all and end-all for sports fanatics, an event in which no fine point is too fine, no minutia too minute.

Where does this madness come from? I could try to justify my tournament obsession as the natural extension of my romance with college basketball. I could sing hymns to the majesty of The Game: the monochromatic, never-say-die fans; the band trumpeting out the tuneful college song; the slap of leather against pine …

But that would be a lie. I feel the same way about the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the pennant race, the Masters. Sports junkies hoard trivia for the same reason political junkies lock their remotes on C-SPAN and Hollywood obsessives salivate over the Academy Awards pre-game show: Power. Trivia allows the junkie to master a small (by definition trivial) corner of the universe. We can explain the tournament, you can’t. We speak a private language–The Big Dance, PTP, zone press, subregionals–and you don’t. The junkie watches a tournament game entirely differently than the casual fan. For the casual fan, the game is art, an aesthetic delight. For the junkie, it’s science.

All sports junkies bore their friends with stories of their astounding predictions. To this day, I congratulate myself for picking low-seeded Louisville, out of 64 teams, to win the 1986 NCAA title. I knew that Denny Crum was a great tournament coach, that Pervis Ellison could dominate, that Louisville’s competition was weak. What I rarely mention is that I failed to guess the champion for the next eight tournaments. Junkiedom does not require knowledge so much as it requires the pretense of knowledge. To really understand college ball, you would need to spend most of the fall and winter watching Big Sky conference games on satellite television and reading back issues of Inside Metro Conference Basketball.

Until this year, being an NCAA-tournament devotee was harmless. Read the sports section, watch early-round games until 2 a.m., videotape the highlights on the local news, and fill out an entry for the pool. Then the USA Today sports section came along, adding to the load. Soon ESPN arrived, and cable became a must. But now the sports Web has arrived. The cocaine has become crack.

I discovered this innocently on the opening day of the tournament. I logged on to Yahoo! to search for scores. I found a mind-boggling array of sports Web sites. Among commercial sites alone, ESPNET SportsZone, CBS’s SportsLine, SI Online, the Sporting News, Nando.net, MSNBC, USA Today, March MadNET, Alleyoop.com, the Sports Network, and Yahoo! itself were covering March Madness. (This is not to mention the NCAA’s excellent site and the 10 million pages maintained by fans, colleges, and local newspapers.)

Ihave spent the last two weeks surfing the Net, and I must report it is magnificent. Sports Web sites are one of the Web’s few financial success stories, and deservedly so. The NCAA tournament is chaos: 64 teams play 32 opening-round games at eight arenas in two days. The frenzy overwhelms traditional media. Newspapers satisfy themselves with 10-inch stories and box scores. TV sportscasters rush through a highlight or two. The sports Web brings order to the anarchy. Unrestricted by space, the sites run more articles and statistics than any newspaper and deliver more audio and video clips than any TV show. Their online tournament pools operate better than any office pool ever could, and their fantasy sports leagues outshine any nonelectronic sports game. Sports Web sites are category killers.

ESPNET SportsZone is the Rolls-Royce of the Web. (Like Rolls-Royce, it costs: $4.95 a month. If you don’t want to pay, you can view some of the site free.) SportsZone does not cover the tournament so much as carpet-bomb it. On March 21, for example, I visited SportsZone to learn who won the UCLA-Iowa State round-of-16 game, which had ended too late to make the morning paper. I immediately found a wire story about UCLA’s overtime win. That led me easily to a box score, photographs, a game summary, half-a-dozen audio clips of post-game interviews, a 10-second QuickTime movie of the Bruins running a fast break, a comprehensive scouting report on both teams, and an online chat room where Bruins fans were whooping it up. And every tournament game receives this treatment. Nothing succeeds like excess.

Other sports sites pale next to SportsZone, but they still demolish print and TV. The Sporting News and CBS’s SportsLine (the other site that charges subscribers) mirror ESPN’s format, but serve less: less multimedia, fewer columns, fewer stats. MSNBC, USA Today, and Yahoo! behave more like wire services than the full-service sites. They post loads of newspaper articles–Yahoo! had almost 50 for one second-round game–but skimp a little on photos and gizmos. Sports Illustrated, by far the best-written sports print magazine, is more disappointing online. It prints too little original content and relies heavily on poorly written wire copy. (I also found it slow-loading and buggy.)

The Sports Network probably attracts more attention than it deserves. It’s slow, ugly, and text-heavy, but it delivers the one key morsel the big sports sites won’t: the Vegas line. SportsZone, SportsLine, et al practice the anti-gambling puritanism of TV, which dumped its oddsmakers years ago. But the Sports Network posts Vegas odds, from the Stardust and Mirage casinos, no less. It also advertises Intertops, a German online bookmaker. In the spirit of unfettered investigative journalism, I tried to place a bet on Intertops, but was completely flummoxed by its complicated log-on.

Still, the gambling-free sites are entertaining enough. Fantasy basketball, baseball, and football leagues are thriving on SportsLine, SportsZone, and the Sporting News. At least half-a-dozen sites, including all the major ones, hosted free online tournament pools. They were a breeze to enter–a few mouse clicks and a password. I signed up for all of them. But instead of achieving power and domination, I suffered a mammoth blow to my junkie ego. Entering Final Four weekend, I rank no higher than 12,277th place in any of them.