Sport coverage, Football and the Olympics in particular, has almost become a loss leader marketing tool for Australian television networks for their raft of other programs. With a recent $1.25 billion deal for broadcast rights to the AFL, the battleground may not be shifting, but it is certainly expanding. Like almost everything in life it seems, it’s expanding online.

Telstra's cut in on that footy broadcast deal, reportedly to the tune of $100 million, setting itself up as a media force in the sports war. Channel 7’s online offering, Yahoo!7, is also getting in on the action, securing Australian rights for the 125th Wimbledon Tennis Championships.

Yahoo!7 is promoting the service as a portal to stay connected to while watching the television coverage, known in buzzspeak as ‘media meshing’, and will offer news, analysis, live scores, photo galleries and current and historical highlights of the tournament.

“Sport is tribal, where passions and emotions run high,” says Yahoo!7’s head of sport Brad van Wely. “We will be working together with 7 to deliver the best coverage across both on air and online… While following the live scores, fans will also be able to consume a rich variety of content including key video highlights and analysis as they follow all their favourite players from the world’s most prestigious tennis event.”

Yahoo!7 boasts of being number one in sport online, with over 3.6 million unique browsers in January this year. Clearly, online sports isn’t a small fry. It’s becoming a priority for media networks, from the big three commercial stations to subscription TV to telcos.

Marketing mag spoke with freelance writer and sports nut Jeremy Loadman, who wrote a superbrand profile of the AFL in our April issue. He believes networks making sport an digital priority has a two-fold benefit.

“The networks are trying to cover sport on all bases,” Loadman tells Marketing mag. Part of it is to get people back to watching TV, but also to connect across as many media as possible, because online viewers are seeing the advertising anyway. The optimal scenario is where one feeds back into the other.”

This might help explain the heavy TVC promotion of ONE’s sport website during television broadcast; get the people to watch sport on the channel, and let the people get their sports news off the channel’s website. Loadman also thinks online sports is a big enough business to justify the networks getting involved just for the sake of scoring a slice of the pie.

“The networks know that the Herald Sun and Real Footy (TheAge) have substantial [audience] numbers, they would be checking these things, and they just want a share of it,” Loadman explains. “It makes sense, why should the newspapers dominate? It’s just turned out they’ve transferred their dominance onto the online world, while the TV channels that actually broadcast [sport] are saying, ‘hang on a second, let’s turn this around’.”

At the moment, Loadman says websites and sport video work best with short grabs of action, over full live streaming coverage.

“I’m unsure whether people would watch a complete match on their computer,” Loadman says, “many might, but the greater use of sports websites at this stage would be for watching highlights.”

Highlights are also ideal for a quick break at work, instead of stealthy hidden screens and rapid minimising when ‘surveillance’ nears. Nevertheless, Loadman thinks the live streaming offered by Telstra and other sites in the future will win over some people.

“Being able to watch live games will attract more people to the sites,” he says. “I wouldn’t change my habits. If I’m not in front of a telly, I won’t watch sport. I’ve got no interest watching it when I’m on the move.”

One stumbling block for networks is the that the model of the major sports websites at the moment caters brilliantly to fans who love a number of popular sports. Just about any major sport has a dedicated page on most of the sites, but by casting the net too wide,it will always be difficult to compete with single–sports focused websites for quantity and quality of content.

“I’m a creature of habit with the sports websites I go to. My interests are AFL and Premier League football, and I go to the one with best information for each. And that means a UK site and the Herald Sun or the Age's footy pages. The general sites follow an old-fashioned model, they don’t go into minute detail, and I know if I go there, I will probably already have read the same story somewhere else already.”

What is your favourite sports website and why? Drop a comment below or connect with us on Twitter via @Marketing mag.