League and Tournament Scheduling Software

Consider this: America Online - an Internet community providing easy access to the World Wide Web - boasts 22 million members who pay a monthly fee of up to $21.95. Meanwhile, LeagueLink.com - a free on-line provider of application tools for recreational sports leagues - has 400 member organizations. Given that statistic, perhaps it's easy to dismiss cyber sports communities as a tiny cog in a monstrous wheel.

But look again. LeagueLink.com, which turns six months old in May, has already merged with ActiveUSA.com to create one of the Web's largest and most comprehensive sites for recreation administrators and enthusiasts. And a plethora of other on-line sports communities serving high school athletics, college and university recreation departments, municipal park and recreation departments, military bases, and church and amateur leagues seem to pop up every other day. Such sites provide access to league, team and player information 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

And until the market is sufficiently saturated - some observers say it already is - there will continue to be new sites vying for users' attention, input and, yes, even money. As one online provider says about the future of cyber sports and recreation communities, "It's going to get really expensive, it's going to become a technology race and it's going to be a content war."

Right now, at least, the concept behind these sites is fairly basic: to offer such common content as customized team and player home pages, game results, bulletin boards, registration forms, team standings and rosters, calendars, personal statistics, classified ad postings, photos and private forums. Some sites go a step further and offer daily news from the world of professional and collegiate sports, free E-mail accounts, contest giveaways, maps to facilities, local weather forecasts and plenty of other log-on incentives. And new features appear on a regular basis. For the most part, revenues and financial support are generated by investors, banner ads and related E-commerce ventures.

Despite all the options available to users, simplified league and tournament scheduling - one of the most requested programs because scheduling games and building brackets by hand can consume dozens of hours and be fraught with last-minute changes - remains elusive for many Webmasters.

Finding ways to provide equal distribution of late and early games, tough and easy opponents, single games and doubleheaders, and standard and high-end facilities (not to mention consideration for the team that's unable to play Tuesday nights and can only occupy the 7 p.m. slot every other Thursday) are some of the most problematic challenges facing software and Internet programmers today. The methodology involves countless complex mathematical algorithms that "border on artificial intelligence," says Alex Barnetson, general manager of Class Software Solutions (CSS), which offers a sports-scheduling module with software specially designed for public and private organizations. (Plans to link that component to the Web are in the works.)

That's why sites that use a scheduling "wizard" to break down and display regular-season schedules and/or tournament brackets have a distinct advantage as the industry heads into uncharted territory - territory that is a far cry from where software companies stood just two years ago. Back then, high-tech scheduling meant programs available on CD-ROMs or floppy disks.

In an Athletic Business survey of scheduling software vendors published in 1996, many respondents indicated that the impact of E-mail access, Internet use and home page programs on the Web would have a significant effect on future recreational-support and sportsscheduling software. And they were right.

"The Internet has provided a weird business environment for everybody," says Gregg Vincent, LeagueLink.com's director of marketing, summing up the Web's impact on all things great and small - from managing recreation departments to sending a greeting card. "In essence, we have a software package that just resides on our servers. We think that's a far superior model."

Apparently, so do other companies. Active Arts, developer of TournamentBuilder scheduling software, introduced SportsMVP.com in early December - less than two weeks before LeagueLink.com debuted. Taking advantage of TournamentBuilder technology that's built into the Web site, SportsMVP.com offers users the opportunity to create league and tournament schedules, brackets and pools on their computers and then load them directly onto the Internet for public, password-protected viewing. "Our challenge was to try to replicate our software technology on the Web," says Kellee "Sparky" Harris, vice president of sales and business development for Active Arts. "That's not as easy as it sounds. But we saw the shift toward Web-based applications coming. Software is eventually going to go away, although it's not going to happen overnight."

I deed, it may take a few years before Web-based scheduling technology is accepted and becomes commonplace in all segments of recreation administration. Suffice to say for now, though, that horror stories recounting 30-hour scheduling marathons for a 54-team baseball tournament - once endured by Luis G. Santos, president of the Diamond Pros youth baseball organization in Bellerose, N.Y. - eventually will be ancient history. With a software scheduling wizard, Santos says he can now schedule the same tournament in six minutes.

Next step: Imagine sending E-mail messages announcing major schedule changes and new programs - or an attachment displaying images of drawings of a new field complex - to all 7,500 program participants, parents, volunteers and officials, thereby saving hundreds of dollars in postage costs or dozens of hours in phone calls and staff time.

Or go even further: Imagine signing onto the Internet, creating a schedule and then posting it on every participant's password-protected home page, which is powered by a Web-based provider. These scenarios are how Web-based providers of sports and recreation applications define "community," and that warm and fuzzy sense of belonging is at the heart of many dotcoms - perhaps too many.

Already, confusion reigns in the marketplace with an abundance of sites offering many of the same services (see "Wide Web of Sports, p. 70). Industry observers predict a shake-up during the next 12 months, in which similar sites will consolidate and a few will emerge as leaders, continuing to revolutionize the business. "It's quite amusing right now," Barnetson says. "There seems to be a hubbub of activity in the sports-scheduling niche, thanks to the Web. But historically speaking, it has always been a challenge to build a viable business on sports-scheduling software. It's very much a niche. It'll be interesting to see how the whole market shakes out."

Barnetson has a vested interest in the outcome not only because CSS is a player, but also because his company is taking a different approach to the market. While SportsMVP.com, LeagueLink.com and other companies simplify administrators' jobs, they also strongly cater to the end users. Banner ads for many sites grace the home pages of local newspapers, sporting goods manufacturers and other sites, beckoning consumers to "click here."

CSS's Class system, on the other hand, quietly targets municipalities, colleges and universities by offering a blanket "enterprise-wide solution" to their operational needs, of which sports scheduling is only a small component, Barnetson says. Of the 450 or so agencies using Class, fewer than 50 use sports scheduling, he says. But those who do offer more well-rounded services to their constituents. For example, using the ideal Class system installation at a college or university, a student would be able to access schedules for on-campus club sports and intramural leagues, as well as learn about tuition increases and register for classes. Similarly, a resident of a municipality using the Class system would be able to log on and check the Monday-night softball league schedule, sign up his daughter for rec department-sponsored ballet lessons and even pay his taxes. "Our approach has been to focus on the enterprise and determine what its needs are," Barnetson says. CSS hopes to integrate its sports-scheduling functions with its facility-reservation capabilities within the year.

Other sites are in the process of launching new programs and services, as well. SportsMVP.com recently debuted its upgraded site, which features a free, abbreviated 16-team version of TournamentBuilder that's available for unlimited use. "We want to get it in people's hands for free so they can try it," Harris says, alluding to AOL's approach, which involved mailing disks worth hundreds of hours of free use to consumers. More robust versions of TournamentBuilder software will be available on-line for purchase. StatBuilder and a new generation of TournamentBuilder, designed for schedule conflict detection and resolution, are expected to appear on-line this summer. Revenues also continue to flow from the site's alliance with ShopSports.com, an Internet sporting goods retailer.

Meanwhile, LeagueLink.com, which Vincent says will never assess fees or sell its software to users, is becoming more active in what the company dubs "convenient commerce." For example, on the home page for an individual who plays in a volleyball league, there might be banner ads for shoes and knee pads. "There will never be an obligation to buy things, but we will give people an opportunity to buy something that they don't necessarily want to buy but have to buy," Vincent says.

One new site that strives not to knock users over the head with blatant commercialism is SportsStandings.com. Instead of displaying banner ads or aligning with on-line retailers, this site teams with major sporting-goods suppliers and subtly includes their names in site images. For example, the hockey page features a player wearing gear from several supporting manufacturers.

Given the abundance of on-line sports communities and scheduling services in cyberspace, it might be easy to conclude that a site (or two) exists for just about every need. That may be the case, but not all sites are created equal. Some Web designers tend to forget who their primary end users will be and wind up creating sites that are too complicated, feature too many bells and whistles requiring plug-ins, or are packed with colorful but slow-loading graphics. Other sites tend to boast more services than they can deliver.

Perhaps these are reasons why some organizations - especially the larger ones - are reluctant to change too much too quickly. "We don't expect people who are running these decent-sized businesses to just throw out everything they've been doing and start using LeagueLink," Vincent says. And only time will tell if they eventually do.

One segment of the sports and recreation market that observers contend is a sure bet to succeed in the on-line world is youth activities. YouthSports.com recently enhanced its free site, designed for youth sports participants, coaches, families, administrators and fans. Because the Web is so popular with children and teenagers, the site has a builtin core of surfers who love to track their personal statistics, game results and schedules. Banner ads for such retailers as Fogdog Sports and Gap Kids also attract parents.

Likewise, a number of Web sites launched to promote high school athletics and other activities follow the same premise. Some, such as iHigh.com, target teenagers with sports news, standings and schedules, as well as stories written by students, on-line music polls, college and career advice, question-and-answer sessions and discussion groups. Meanwhile, eteamz.com, a popular site for youth and adult amateur athletics, also targets coaches and officials. Coaches can discuss strategies and draw up plays while in eteamz chat rooms, as well as find a library of drills, coaching techniques and diagrams at the site. Officials even have their own gathering place to discuss rules and calls. Other sites aim straight for athletic directors and administrators, providing management software tools and little else.

The challenge in a cyber world lies in finding the right site to meet your needs and those of your members, participants or constituents. Remember that an on-line community reflects the real world communities it represents. Also keep in mind that while some people - namely your end users - are adept at surfing the Web, others are still learning, and at least a handful (especially municipal end users) still haven't logged on.

"We've barely touched the surface," Harris says about the mountain of online possibilities that still remain. "If we can just get people to try the technology, I think we can convince them. Right now, there are still a lot of people who don't even know we exist. Our biggest competitor, quite frankly, is still paper and pencil."