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The Direct Connection

When earlier this month Dennis Rodman expressed interest in
returning to the NBA, no freak-show press conference was hastily
arranged, no sportswriter was tipped off, no late-night TV host
got the scoop. (Rodman did discuss his intentions on The Tonight
Show, but actress Charlize Theron was a guest and the Worm never
can resist sharing the couch with a starlet.) Instead, Rodman
wrote of his intentions in his Web site journal at
www.AthleteDirect.com. "Most recently Dallas has been mentioned,
and for me the important thing is that I really want to play for
a team that can go far in the playoffs," Rodman (above)
scrivened. "I don't know if it's Dallas."

Just as Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, capitalized upon the
most efficient means of eliminating the middleman (i.e., the
retail store) in commerce, AthleteDirect is leading the way in
eliminating the intermediary in free speech (i.e., the Fourth
Estate). As Bills wide receiver Andre Reed wrote on his
AthleteDirect page on Jan. 11, "I don't talk to the media in
Buffalo, so they couldn't wait for something to break! My journal
was all they needed." More like, My journal was all they were
going to get.

Launched in 1996 by the Internet company Broadband.com,
AthleteDirect now produces Web pages for more than 200 athletes,
giving each player a slice of the advertising and the
merchandising revenue generated by his or her page. "We're hoping
to have a paradigm shift where people come to this site for their
primary information," says AthleteDirect general manager Jason
Schirn. "[Denver Broncos tight end] Shannon Sharpe, for example,
says that he will talk to no media before a Super Bowl now, only
through his Web site."

At AthleteDirect, 20 or so employees transcribe the jock-hacks'
entries and check for errors in grammar and spelling. Are there
reasons to believe that the athletes, and not their agents or
publicists, deserve the bylines? Aside from assurances from
Schirn, there are none.

Not only does AthleteDirect give jocks the opportunity to
present themselves in the most flattering light and to cash in
while doing it, but a "Message Board" link on each site lets
fans converse with them. "We try to have each athlete provide an
entry once a week during his or her season," says Schirn, who
joined AthleteDirect after being a producer for ESPN's Up Close
with Roy Firestone. "Fans get used to knowing their favorite
athlete's entry will be there. Consequently the commercial
aspects of our site receive greater traffic." Meanwhile, the
media would do well to learn a new phrase. Instead of hearing
"No comment" or "Maybe later," the brush-off may become "Visit
my Web site."

--John Walters

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH

CUTTING NO SLACK
In his second stint as analyst, former NBA coach Danny Ainge
again will call 'em as he sees 'em

Last week Danny Ainge returned to TBS and TNT as an NBA analyst
after spending three-plus seasons coaching the Suns. In his first
week back on the beat Ainge attended eight basketball games. "My
kids' games," said Ainge last Saturday. (His eldest son,
18-year-old Austin, is a guard at Highland High in Gilbert,
Ariz., and three more of his six offspring play at various
levels.) Ainge may have divorced himself from NBA coaching to
spend more time with his family, but his basketball jones is
alive. "I'm a basketball junkie," says Ainge. "That will never
change."

Turner Sports agrees. On Dec. 14, the day after Ainge resigned
from his position as Suns coach in order to spend more time with
his family, Turner contacted him about returning to the analyst
position that he'd held in 1995-96 to favorable reviews. "Right
now I'm working without a contract," Ainge says, "but I plan on
doing this for a while."

In his first stint Ainge displayed a gym rat's passion for the
game while communicating his thoughts with clarity and a caustic
wit. He returns to the mike with the perspective of a coach who
has drawn up game plans encompassing virtually every player in
the league. Viewers can expect Ainge to remain unsparing in his
assessments. "My personality hasn't changed," he says. "Coaching
may have given me more insights, but it didn't make me any more
or less sympathetic to the people on the court. I'm still going
to say what's on my mind."

--J.W.

Losers
NFL Playoff Ratings

According to Nielsen, overnight ratings for last weekend's
divisional playoffs averaged 10% lower than the 1999 numbers.
Ominously, the largest TV market left for the conference finals
is No. 13 Tampa Bay.

Winners
The Rams

Kurt Warner and Co.'s 49-37 victory over the Vikings on Sunday
on Fox earned a smashing 21.2 rating and a 43 share in the
overnights.

Athletes such as Dennis Rodman use the Web to disseminate their
messages unfiltered by the media.