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SI.com Gets Exclusive, Even with AOL

Free online sporting news from Sports Illustrated's Web site is going behind a paid firewall, and even America Online subscribers won't be getting a free peek at the content from the ISP's corporate cousins in Time Warner publishing.

The publication said it is gathering features from the magazine's site, such as columns and other specially-formatted content, into a section within SI.com called "SI Exclusive." Most of the content on the site will still remain free, but the new exclusive section will be paid, the publication said.

Other Time Warner-owned publications such as People and Real Simple have shuttled their content behind AOL's firewalls and are now offered exclusively online to AOL subscribers -- part of the company's effort to attract new broadband subscribers at a time of declining subscribers to its dial-up service.

However, even though most of SI.com's exclusive, paid content will only available to magazine subscribers in this case, AOL will be playing a role in the move: helping to promote the magazine's subscription promotion.

New exclusive content features on the SI.com Web site are expected to place the Sports Illustrated name brand in front of AOL's 29 million domestic subscribers as part of promotions with AOL members in order to entice new magazine subscribers. The ISP has been legendary for helping to drive subscriptions of other Time Warner magazine subscriptions.

And it's part of the overall trend of online publications moving from the purely free, ad-supported format of a few years ago, to a mixture of paid and free in order to diversify a site's revenue base.

A spokesperson at SI.com said the idea behind the new section of the SI.com Web site is to reward subscribers of the magazine with Web-only extras and content.

For example, SI subscribers will have access to columns and coverage from Peter King, Tom Verducci and other SI "Insider" writers. Plus, said spokesperson Allison Falkenberry, the "SI Exclusive" section includes extra photo images from the magazine's popular Swimsuit issue. Other exclusive sections will be SI Adventure and Golf Plus.

The SI.com change comes as AOL prepares to unveil its 9.0 Optimized client, along with new services and content bundled inside the services, which is expected in few weeks. As the marketing machine for AOL gears up for the launch, Sports Illustrated is apparently placing its magazine subscription promotion on a similar track in order to leverage the heightened awareness of AOL's sites that will benefit from marketing the new AOL client.

Sports Illustrated counts some 3.2 million subscribers, but the Web is often site is outpaced in Web traffic by ESPN.com, the online version of the cable channel.

According to Jupiter Research, whose parent company also owns this publication, ESPN.com is the number one source of new subscriptions to ESPN Magazine. Sports Illustrated and Time derive between 5 percent and 10 percent of their new business from the Web.

"Acquiring subscriptions through the Web site limits losses associated with direct mail, primarily due to cost savings resulting from the elimination of paper, printing, and postage costs."