SportStream’s App Bottles the Social Media Explosion in Sports

8/3/12Follow @wroush

I don’t have much of a head for sports. If you said “ERA” my first thought would be Equal Rights Amendment, not Earned Run Average. And being a cable TV cord-cutter, I never watch televised games. But I do know about iPads, social media, and next-generation-TV technologies. So at the risk of sounding like a total doofus, I’m going to spend some time telling you about SportStream, a cool new app that lets sports fans join online conversations about their favorite teams while they’re watching games on TV.

SportStream is basically Twitter plus instant messaging plus play-by-play updates, all organized around your favorite teams’ live games. The free app came out in June, and it’s the product of a San Francisco startup backed by Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft who loves sports (he owns the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trailblazers) and loves to invest in tech startups through his holding company, Vulcan. The startup has interesting roots in the Bay Area search scene—and it has ambitions to become the leading company providing “second screen” experiences that make watching TV sports more social and more fun.

There’s no question that sports events are major grist for social media conversations. Tweets about Super Bowl XLVI back in February reached a peak volume of more than 12,000 per second. And it’s been impossible to follow Twitter this week without hearing ceaselessly about the London Olympics—especially viewer fury over NBC’s coverage strategy, which is piling up at an exponential rate under the #NBCfail hashtag.

“If you’re a sports fan, you have an inherently social, passionate, emotional connection to your favorite teams, players, and sports,” says Bob Morgan, SportStream’s co-founder and vice president of product and marketing. “That is why you’re seeing the volume of discussion in the social networks really explode.”

The SportStream main page shows a stream of Twitter posts, play-by-play updates, and other information related to each game the user is following.

The volume is so explosive, in fact, that it’s becoming overwhelming. Even if you’re just interested in one event or one team—say, the Detroit Tigers—there are too many people chattering away on Facebook and Twitter to keep track of all of them. That’s where SportStream’s unique expertise in content filtering comes in.

When you sign into the SportStream app and start following a game, the app shows you a timeline of play-by-play updates and tweets. But they’re not just any tweets, and they’re not from the people you usually follow on Twitter. Instead, they’re the ones that SportStream thinks are most relevant, authoritative, and interesting.

According to Will Hunsinger, SportStream’s CEO and other co-founder, the app is “coalescing the social media conversation around a particular game” using a “temporal, relevancy, and credibility filter to provide the user with a highly focused experience.” That’s a bit of jargon, but when it comes to relevancy and filters, Hunsinger does know what he’s talking about: he’s also the CEO of Evri, a Seattle-based startup that makes topic-based news reader apps for the iPad, Kindle Fire, and other mobile devices. He says SportStream’s filtering technology is its “biggest advantage” over other companies offering sports-related social media and second-screen apps.

That technology is partly a legacy of SportStream’s connection to Evri and to a previous startup, San Francisco-based Radar Networks, which Evri absorbed in 2010. Radar Networks had built a social bookmarking service called Twine where users and semantic algorithms worked together to create a network of interlinked topic pages. The Twine technology complemented Evri’s natural language processing algorithms that seek to categorize news stories by topic. By combining the companies, Evri ended up with “deep expertise in mobile, social media and [an] understanding of how to filter large volumes of content,” Hunsinger says.

As it happened, a lot of the people in Evri’s San Francisco office—the former Radar Networks location—were “hardcore sports fans,” Morgan says. They began to think about the ways they might use filtering technology to organize online conversations around televised sports events. “Whether it’s Facebook posts or finding the best tweets about a particular game, we are uniquely positioned with our know-how to tackle some of those things,” Morgan says.

But the idea was so different from Evri’s main business that it didn’t make sense to develop it as an Evri product, Hunsinger says. “Social sports for the second screen is an entirely different space than leveraging semantics for a mobile news experience,” he says. “As such, in order to be focused entirely on this unique and different opportunity, we needed to have a different company with its own strategy.” Vulcan, which had already backed Evri, agreed to put $3.5 million into the new startup.

When you fire up the SportStream app for the first time, you’re asked to connect to your Facebook and Twitter accounts, and to pick your favorite sports teams—right now the app only covers Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, the National Football League, but Morgan says NCAA football will be added by the fall. Major League Soccer likely to follow, along with coverage of big sports events like the U.S. Open in tennis or golf.

Next you see a grid of upcoming games, highlighting the games your favorite teams are playing—later today (Friday), for example, the Giants are playing the Mets in the third game of a four-game set at AT&T Park. You can view preview stories and broadcast information about the game, and once it’s underway, there are complete box scores and play-by-play accounts.

The main screen shows the aforementioned Twitter timeline, and there’s an area for posting your own tweets or Facebook status updates (the app even provides preformatted hashtags like #SFGvNYM, #MLB, #mets, and #sfgiants). If you “check in” to a game, you can chat via an iMessage-like interface with other SportStream users who are checked into the same game.

The overall point is to weave together information from many sources and provide fans with a running commentary generated by other fans, not by droning TV announcers. “Each modality has a certain appeal,” says Morgan, referring specifically to the chat area and the Twitter timeline. “Last night I tweeted when the A’s won in the 15th inning to get their 12th walk off win of the year. That’s something you just want to make a public proclamation about. But if you want to commiserate with other fans about your starting pitcher’s issues, and you don’t want to tweet publicly about it, chat is a good place.”

Morgan says the next release of the app will have an added feature that should appeal to couch-borne fans who follow lots of teams or sports at once. It’s a “Red Zone” alert that will tell you when an important play is underway in another game, like when your favorite football team’s archrival has the ball inside the 20-yard line and is threatening to score. SportStream engineered the feature in partnership with Are You Watching This?, an Austin, TX-based company that’s built a “game-watching robot” that alerts subscribers when baseball games look like they’re turning into no-hitters or football games go into triple overtime. “We will say ‘This game is hot, there is an upset happening, you should tune in,’” says Morgan. “That goes nicely together [with social media] because as those games heat up so does the conversation, and you want to be informed in real time.”

Now, as I explained above, I don’t follow sports, so I’m not likely to turn into a habitual SportStream user. But the app is a sophisticated example of a second-screen content service, which I can totally relate to. When I watch television content on Netflix or Apple TV, I’ve always got my iPad within reach, in case I want to check something on IMDB or Wikipedia. (That whole thing on Buffy the Vampire Slayer about Angel having a soul because he was cursed by Gypsies? It isn’t explained very well on the show; I had to look it up.)

The rhythm of the way sports are played makes it a logical place for the second screen to thrive. Between innings in baseball, TV timeouts in basketball, breaks between plays in football—these frequent pauses in the action are traditional places for TV commercials, but they are also ideal moments for fans to chat amongst themselves about what just happened, or is about to happen.

I also think it’s interesting that most of the innovation in the second-screen market is coming from startups rather than broadcasters or TV manufacturers (see my related articles on Dijit Media and Flingo). Arguably, all the Tweeting and trash talk that’s taking place online during games is a sign that sports broadcasters are no longer able to hold their viewers’ full attention. Maybe that’s just because Google, Facebook, and Twitter are making us more distractible, as Nicholas Carr has argued in his book The Shallows. Or maybe there’s just something missing from the traditional televised-sports formula. That certainly seems to be the sentiment on the Web about this week’s Olympics coverage.

Morgan thinks the big broadcasters are suffering from a classic case of innovator’s dilemma. “I used to be at Kodak, where the message was ‘Don’t disrupt the model’ [of film- and print-based photography], and then all of a sudden the model got disrupted on us,” he says. On the other hand, he adds, “I am getting signals as we go to market that there is a lot more interest from cable guys and device manufacturers. They really do want to start bridging this gap and create more connected experiences.”

They’ll have to work hard to catch up with outfits like SportStream. Morgan says his small team (currently just nine employees, but hiring) will add more types of information to its timeline to make the experience richer for fans. An extra layer of statistics for fantasy sports league players is one likely addition—and could be an example of a revenue-generating premium service for the startup. The startup is also keeping an eye on fringe sports like UFC (mixed martial arts) and the X Games, where organizers and sponsors have a greater appetite for media experimentation.

And eventually, there might be ways to use the data the company is collecting to create a real-time feedback loop that could help broadcasters figure out what to show on live TV. “As we filter social media content, we are able to see the velocity of what people are talking about, the interest and excitement level,” Morgan says. “That is a really interesting signal. What should the playlist of the Olympics look like? There is a real opportunity to help audiences get to what is being discussed right now.”

To help make all that happen, SportStream has access to some very deep pockets. Allen personally likes to Tweet about sports in real-time, offering live commentary about big recent events like the NFL draft from his @PaulGAllen account. “Unquestionably, there was increased receptivity to the idea from Paul Allen given his passion for sports and social media,” says Hunsinger. “Suffice it to say, ownership of multiple professional sports teams is probably the most significant manifestation of a passion for sports one could muster.”

And as Hunsinger points out, SportStream isn’t Allen’s first foray into sports and media. Back in the ‘90s, he invested in Seattle-based software and Web development company Starwave, which created ESPN.com, and Vulcan owned The Sporting News magazine from 2001 to 2006. Allen “totally ‘got it’ when [we] pitched the concept of an intersection of social and sports,” says Hunsinger.

The bottom line: if you’re one of the 83 percent of sports fans who say they check social media sites during televised games, you’ll want to try SportsStream. It’s only available on the iPad for now, but an iPhone version is on the way, with an Android version and a Web app potentially to follow, according to Morgan. He says the business plan for now at Sportstream is to build up its user base by offering its wares for free, and find opportunities for revenue later, through advertising or premium services.

At the moment, however, the startup’s big push is getting ready for the start of the NCAA football season on August 30. Morgan attended UCLA, and he says he’s looking forward to trash-talking the Bruins’ arch-rival, the USC Trojans. “I expect that is going to be heated,” he says—meaning he’ll probably confine his posts to the chat area. “None of us really need to be on tweeting with some of the things I have to say about USC.”

Here’s a promotional video about the app produced by SportStream.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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