Where keeping score is no day in the park The Sports Network, headquartered in Hatboro, has made itself essential for fans.

Posted: February 10, 2004

Every night, a first-floor room in a Hatboro office building becomes a center of the American sports information universe.

At 10 workstations, facing a bank of 32 television monitors, score reporters for The Sports Network keep track of all the games, college and pro, sending out updates every few minutes via the Internet.

This kind of work has made this local company a big player in a not-so-small sports business niche. But it can all be a little mind-numbing, as Greg Boyle knows full well.

His assignment in the scoreboard room one night last week was to report on a half-dozen college basketball games, all at once.

He watched two on satellite television, listened to three on Web-based radio hookups and tracked the sixth, George Mason at Towson, through the method of last resort - repeated speed-dial calls to press row.

Once he had the numbers, he'd enter them into his computer and hit the send button.

And then he'd do it all again.

And again.

On this night, The Sports Network provided updates, statistics, previews and recaps for 49 men's college games, five women's games, and 10 NBA and six NHL games, as well as scores only for minor-league hockey and basketball.

From its suburban headquarters overlooking the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the network operates its own Web site and provides sports data to more than 500 other sites, many of them operated by newspapers.

"We're basically a sleeping giant in Philadelphia's backyard," said Ken Zajac, the company's director of sales.

Its 300-some clients include AT&T, Reuters, Comcast, the Clear Channel network, Knight Ridder (parent company of The Inquirer and Daily News) and the New York Times, New York Daily News, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and Dallas Morning News, among others.

If you go to almost any of those sites and look at the sports scoreboard, you'll see the words "powered by www.sportsnetwork.com" in the fine print.

Founded in 1983 in a garage, The Sports Network now has 100 full-time employees in Hatboro and another 300 stringers in the field. It recently became the official statistical service for minor-league baseball.

Mickey Charles, the president and CEO, refuses to get specific about revenue or earnings. But he describes the operation as "comfortably profitable."

"In a world of only two [companies], we have evolved into the premier company doing what we do," Charles said as he walked the company's memorabilia-lined walls. "We do more Web pages than anybody in the world. People in this industry have no idea how big we are."

The other company, by the way, is SportsTicker, which also bills itself as "the world's leading real-time sports news and information service."

Owned by ESPN, SportsTicker provides scores for the scoreboard and broadcast booths in every ballpark in major-league baseball and most of them in the NFL, NBA and NHL. Among its other clients are CNN, Fox Sports Net, America Online, MSNBC, USA Today, and, of course, the various elements of the ESPN empire.

"Being nimble is one of the keys to this business," said Rick Alessandri, senior vice president and general manager of ESPN Enterprises, who wouldn't be drawn into comparisons between the competitors. "Our ultimate goal is to give the fans information any time, any place, anywhere, which could be through their watches, interactive TV, or digital readouts from satellite radio."

Charles couldn't agree more, although he has his eye on a different technological device at the moment.

"The cell phone is going to eclipse the Internet [as an information vehicle], and people who don't understand it are going to fall behind," he said.

An attorney by training, Charles, 68, has been an off-and-on minor celebrity in the Philadelphia area for years. In the 1970s, he wrote a sports handicapping column for this newspaper, then hosted a local radio talk show from an Atlantic City casino. At one point, he coauthored a sports cartoon.

In 1980, he started a call-in sports news service, which let sports fans (and gamblers) get updated scores, statistics, injury reports and betting odds over the telephone. That business gradually morphed into a sports wire service.

"Until about 1994, we were sort of plodding along," Zajac said. "Then the Internet took hold, and that really catapulted us forward."

Even now, The Sports Network doesn't do a lot of in-depth journalism. For the most part, it takes news and information that is pretty readily available and recycles it - in a hurry.

"The guy who invented the wheel, he wasn't that great," Charles said. "The guy who invented the other three, he was a genius. That's sort of where we see ourselves."

At the moment, the network is developing a new venture, sportsromance.com, which is expected to use interest in sports - spectator and participant - as a criterion for matchmaking.

The guts of the business will continue to be scores and statistics, delivered quickly, reliably and accurately.

By the way, George Mason beat Towson that night, 74-57, not that Greg Boyle would remember, despite having called press row at Towson about 20 times.

Said Boyle: "If you don't have a rooting interest, the night can be a blur. Someone will ask you later who won a game that you had, and you have no idea."

Contact staff writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or leichel@phillynews.com.

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