TMZ gossip website to target sports stars

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The Independent Online

"Premier League boss caught in a brothel!" screamed The Sun. It's a salaciously poised headline offering just enough to whet its readers' appetite, satisfy lawyers and allow the guilty subject some short-term anonymity to plan his defence.

But very soon, transgression-ridden sports stars may not be granted such luxuries. TMZ, the chequebook-waving gossip site that has caught Mel Gibson drink-driving and broke news of Michael Jackson's death almost an hour before the BBC, is expected to launch a site targeting sports personalities early next year. It comes off the back of zealous coverage of the Tiger Woods revelations, which have brought a five million spike of unique visitors to TMZ this month.

The timing coincides with a voracious public appetite to expose the Achilles heels of sports stars, following high-profile incidents involving the likes of F1 boss Max Moseley, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and cricketer Freddie Flintoff. Max Clifford, the PR guru, says it could lead to sports people "investing in the same levels of protection that have been the critical instrument of the entertainment industry for over twenty years".

Nick King, media and sports solicitor at Sheridans, says: "Claims for damages risk becoming little more than a meaningless bolting of the stable door long after the horse has bolted. Max Moseley was paid £60,000 in damages, but that's almost insignificant sum compared to what it did to his reputation online."

TMZ, an acronym for "thirty mile zone", has become the site celebrities fear. In February it ran a startling image of pop star Rihanna after she was beaten up by her then boyfriend, Chris Brown. Before Michael Jackson shot it to mainstream attention, the British media experienced its speed and accuracy with the coverage of actor Natasha Richardson's death.