ESPN.com Finds Itself Locked Out on NBA News

Rival SportsLine had a story on the lockout's end a full 20 minutes ahead of the online sports leader.
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ESPN.com

has a commanding lead over its competitors in sports news. But when the biggest sports-business story of the season was breaking Wednesday morning, the

Disney

(DIS) - Get Report

unit was not at the top of its game.

Rumors that the

NBA

lockout was over began filtering out around 10:45 a.m. EST. By 11 a.m., both

SportsLine

(SPLN)

and

CNN/SI

-- the second and third most popular sports sites, respectively -- had headlines in large typeface, "Lockout Ends" and "Season Saved," with brief newswire stories.

ESPN.com has long been considered the first place sports fans go for the latest sports news. In November, for instance, it captured 4.1 million unique visitors, compared with 2.3 million visitors at Sportsline and 2 million at CNN/SI, according to Web-tracker

Media Metrix

.

But it had a headline reading "Clock Ticks as NBA Hangs in Balance" for most of this morning and a subhead saying "NBA denies report that lockout is over." Worst of all, ESPN.com's main page had a picture of Vinny Del Negro essentially waving goodbye to the NBA season.

Not until 11:15 a.m. did ESPN.com come on board. "We chose to wait to get it confirmed by league sources; the other sites were just relying on a report from a Phoenix radio station," says Jim Jenks, the executive producer of

ESPN Internet Ventures

. "ESPN's policy both online and off-line is to confirm news before airing it -- we would rather be right than early."

But Ross Levinsohn, SportsLine's vice president of programming, says SportsLine confirmed the story with three sources and still had it up by 10:54 a.m., more than 20 minutes before ESPN.com. "It's sort of our mission to be fast and first, and we have established ourselves as getting news up first for some time," says Levinsohn. "It's a great way for us to start 1999."

SportsLine, whose stock was up 1 15/16, or 11%, to 18 15/16 today, was just one of a number of sports stocks that jumped on the news of an end to the lockout, something

TSC

reported earlier today.

When ESPN.com did post the story, it seemed as if it was trying to make up for its lack of haste. At 12:45 p.m., its site had the largest "Lockout Over" headline of all the sites and a live feed from New York that allowed readers to ask questions of NBA players such as Dana Barros and Steve Kerr.