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ESPN links with Prodigy

Now that the Olympics are over and CBS’ special sports coverage is no longer available on Prodigy, what’s a cyberspace sports enthusiast to do?

ESPN, the country’s largest cable network with 62.9 million households, is stepping into the void. ESPN Enterprises and Prodigy Services Co. have agreed on a deal that will bring ESPN’s sports offerings to the online service in a big way.

Prodigy on Thursday announced the first of three phases of the deal, which will bring both the NCAA basketball tournament and Dick Vitale, ESPN’s leading basketball commentator, to home-computer screens nationwide.

Beginning Sunday and continuing throughout the NCAA tourney’s March Madness, ESPN will provide previews of each game and Vitale will go live on Prodigy’s sports bulletin board to answer fan questions and offer nightly commentary. One planned feature is to bring ESPN’s regular “Did You Know?” segment to computer users, providing them with information that goes unused in the nightly telecasts.

The ESPN-Prodigy relationship will continue beyond the tournament. According to Barbara Bellafiore Sanden, Prodigy’s general manager of news, sports and information, the service will establish a designated area on its system for ESPN creating a platform where it can promote programming, conduct polling and interact with viewers. This second phase of the relationship will be announced within a month. To access the bulletin board, users will be required to pay a value-added charge.

The third phase of the relationship is a closely guarded secret. ESPN is expected to provide sports information and product to Prodigy for the online service’s resident sports bulletin board.

This phase is being referred to, by some who are close to the talks, as a type of “full-service” sports network with up-to-the minute statistics, information and video stills. The completed service will be more complex and will provide users with a greater array of features than previous Prodigy-cable network co-productions.

“We are discussing a much more elaborate online relationship. … we have been talking at great lengths and a deal is close to completion,” said Dick Glover, ESPN’s senior VP of entertainment. Financial arrangements are being kept under wraps.

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