Quokka Kicks

Can Virtual Adventure Thrive on the Internet? A Brazen New Web Site Says Yes. But Is This Digital Expedition into the Unknown a Revolutionary Way to Experience Sports, or a Business Disaster in the Making?

Dec 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
No wonder Quokka is considering new tacks. The company has been retrenching under its new COO Alvaro Saralegui, 43, who was hired eight months ago to bring some big-media experience and to update a business plan that many in the Internet world have viewed as seriously flawed. Saralegui spent a decade and a half working on the business side at Sports Illustrated; he has pledged to make Quokka "more customer friendly" and so far has expanded Quokka's two-person sales staff to 16. He has also attacked spending, targeting the practicality of the company's approach to adventure-sports events such as the "First Ascent" expedition, which was entirely funded by Quokka. "A media company is not an event-creation company," says Saralegui. "Those are two very different things, and for people who came from a technology background"—essentially the entire Quokka hierarchy—"that subtlety, I think, was lost."

The creative side, led almost since the company's inception by Chief Creative Officer Michael Gough, 43, an architect and virtual-reality enthusiast, initially resisted making compromises in its elaborate user interface and complex design. Gough says that the debate—"that's a nice word"—is ongoing. Saralegui diplomatically says that the company remains "intrigued" by adventure programming and that "it could turn into a nice little business," but Quokka will only commit to events with partners who will share the costs. "We're not writing checks like we used to," he adds. In the six months before the IPO, Quokka covered three adventure events; in the six months after, it had none on the schedule. What you find instead is plenty of auto racing (one of the most popular spectator sports in America) and motorcycle racing (huge in Europe), the already proven sailing coverage, and previews of what could be either a watershed event or Quokka's last gasp—the Olympics.

Quokka's joint venture with NBC includes the Summer Games in Sydney in 2000, the 2002 games in Salt Lake City, and Athens in 2004. It also means that Quokka will be writing some very big checks to show off its wares and wave the corporate logo. Having won over NBC with a prototype of what it could do (the site will provide coverage of all Olympic events, including less-popular ones that NBC may not have air time for), Quokka is responsible for 100 percent of the cost of operating the site and will spend between $15 million and $20 million. The sum is justified, in part, because of the hope that its Olympic coverage will generate a large audience, and higher user numbers could mean more sponsors and more revenue. The Olympics deal may also be Quokka's best hope of survival. Ramadan's pitch: "The traditional media companies are looking at ways to extend their programming in this new space. They've got two decisions they can make: They can build it themselves, or they can buy the expertise. Our belief is that by partnering with us, we actually deliver more value than they can internally." Other plans call for adding immersion-style breaking sports news, e-commerce, pay-per-view, and fantasy gaming to the mix.

Perhaps fittingly, Quokka's namesake, the cat-size Setonix brachyurus found primarily on the Australian island Rottnest, is tough. Marketing prose on the site itself boasts, "In a hostile desert environment, the quokka has not merely survived, it has thrived." On the other hand, there is the alarming Australian pastime called "quokka soccer," which means just what you'd think: having fun kicking the crap out of the cute little fellas. Needless to say, they don't always survive.

Quokka has been kicked, too, but Ramadan scarcely acknowledges the possibility of defeat, even as he cheerfully admits that with the Internet's future uncharted, "we're sailing in the fog." If Quokka can reinvent itself every six months, Ramadan seems to think, success will take care of itself. "Let's roll it forward ten years," he says. "We're not even debating whether broad-band is going to happen. We're all going to be living in a world where there is an entertainment appliance connected to a high-speed network. That is for sure where the endgame is here. What we will be is a channel on that network."


Mark Lasswell is a freelance writer based in New York. This is his first article for Outside.

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