Sports apps are on the rise, able to deliver subscription income and other rewards to rights holders and sponsors, but we’re likely to see even greater development of the genre to benefit both the sports brands and their fans.

Here’s a riddle for the sports industry: what does almost every leading team, most top events and many major stadiums have within their digital business model, but very few seem to use effectively. Well, the answer is an app. Their numbers might be increasing, but their appeal is not universal.

CBS Sports HQ: Launched in February 2018

CBS Sports HQ: Launched in February 2018

Source: CBS

Richard Ayers founder and CEO of SevenLeague, Europe’s leading sports digital agency, believes that there is one guiding rule for sports apps – they should perform one task “beautifully” rather than many tasks averagely. “The top app designers want the user experience to be so special that it becomes a core part of the life of the fan,” says Ayers. “The obvious non-sports apps that do that are the one for your emails or the weather or your home shopping deliveries. For sports, that might mean your sports news app or your OTT viewing app or your team for updates, but there are many more out there that don’t have that key user experience.”

The ultimate criteria for success in the app world is a balance of many things: reach; user engagement; how much money is made from it; and how much data can be collected through it. Every sports app owner wants ROI from the app because this can be an expensive business, yet each case is different.

An OTT streaming app can deliver subscription income and the high audience apps are very attractive to sponsors, while others can generate plenty of revenue from their sports merchandise or elsewhere via the data. 

Home run
Among the most admired sports apps is CBS Sports HQ which was launched in February this year and is a 24/7 sports news streaming service featuring highlights from NFL, PGA Tour golf and NCAA.

Live game broadcasts have remained on the CBS network channel with OTT rights deals being negotiated as an accessory to the standard linear distribution deal.

CBS Sports HQ is part of an offering called CBS All Access, which is the main CBS OTT service and already boasts around two million subs since it launched in October 2014. Meanwhile, Amazon Channels started selling CBS All Access in the USA only in January, so there is significant room for subscriber growth.

Elsewhere in the US, ESPN+ is a standalone service which sits outside its pay-TV ecosystem, but at only two months since launch it is a little early for subscriber numbers. It features a full slate of live Major League Soccer matches as well as three of the four tennis majors (not the French Open), 15 live UFC fights and one MLB and NBA game per week along with further non-live baseball and basketball programming.

Thomas Thomson, Research Analyst at Enders Analysis, says: “ESPN+ is comparable with NBC streaming English Premier League matches not shown on its linear networks. The initial feedback regarding the quality of stream has been positive. Moreover, it has a very polished user interface. Given the $5 monthly subscription and the range of audiences it could potentially serve, it’s decent value.”

Thomson believes ESPN+ is unlikely to start cannibalising eyeballs from the linear channels ESPN and ESPN2, but Disney is committed to augmenting the range of ESPN content in the next few years. “The recent deal between Disney and UFC to provide exclusive coverage of 15 fights through ESPN+ can be seen as something of a statement of intent,” he says.

‘The top app designers want the user experience to be so special that it becomes a core part of the life of the fan’ – Richard Ayers, SevenLeague

Pitching in
Creating apps is fine for the major broadcasters, the top sports leagues and worldwide rights holders to leading events, but it can be a financial burden to others. “You can save money by taking an ‘off the shelf’ and providing a basic service,” explains Richard Ayers. “[However] it’s not cheap to build a bespoke app, and the annual upkeep of that can easily stretch into six figures if you also want to hit all territories and all devices.”

And, for that reason, sports apps tend to be linked to some form of income opportunity. There are freemium models, full subscription models and free apps that rely on sponsorship or user purchase to make money.

Ayers believes that each option can work for various clients and some of the best are like a marriage where teams match up with their home stadium, like the Sacramento Kings in the NBA and the two-year-old Golden 1 Center. “You tap your phone to enter and to buy your beer which builds up special loyalty points and you get personalised information and on it goes,” he says

The balance for any sports app, even for the Kings, is that it wants to serve its global audience (which might be as much as 80% of its total fan base), but also the core fans, those who attend games and make up the other 20%. “There’s a kind of 80-20 rule because to serve the core fans properly and maximise ROI, apps need to spend 80% of the money and effort on them. For some, that’s not always the case,” says Ayers.

Playing to win
Major broadcasters like Eurosport see the development of the app as a case of integration. Ralph Rivera, executive vice president and managing director of Eurosport Digital, says apps need to become more holistic in their offerings. “The people who have downloaded the app are usually the more engaged users, so the app needs to have the ability to integrate other capabilities, micro services, like notifications or making use of the camera is necessary as well as have responsiveness.”

Every minute of action from PyeongChang: Eurosport Player

Every minute of action from PyeongChang: Eurosport Player

Source: Eurosport

Rivera developed the Eurosport Player app which offered every minute of action from this year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, including 50 hours of virtual reality broadcast via the app because “that was the only way we could deliver it technically”.

So, there is more to come from apps – especially as part of a multiple device strategy both for the sports brands and their fans. Alexios Dimitropolous, Analyst at Ampere Analysis believes that the next trend is for platforms to increase the interactive experience. “Providing options to customise views such as different live cameras to choose from and live feeds from different events on the same screen, as well as viewing statistics on players and teams,” he says. “We expect applications to be very customer-focused, giving the viewer freedom to experience the event in the way they want.”

Ralph Rivera also thinks that personalisation and community is coming to sports apps: “We know that digital tailors an experience to the individual, whereas broadcast gives the same experience to everyone. But it’s important to look at this sport-by-sport, experience-by-experience.”

Richard Ayers believes there is still a lot of learning to do among much of the sports app community. “One issue is the usage of the app,” he says. “For example, the Open Championship app is really good and so is the one for the Masters, but these are used mostly for just for one week in a year. So regular usage of apps and also reach are the weak links of many apps at the moment and yet they are the strength of the website.”

The future of app development will bring more processing power of mobile phones plus extra storage and improved connectivity, especially with the introduction of 5G. That is good news for broadcasters who use plenty of bandwidth for live streaming via their apps.

‘We use facial recognition technology, along with video and audio analytics and social media, so that the app alerts the user when a significant moment of the game is happening’ – Matti Kochavi, Heed

Smart fans
And there is no sign that the thirst for new apps is diminishing. One of the most unusual perhaps has been developed by Heed for the Euroleague basketball organisation and will watch the game for you rather than have you sit in front of the screen yourself.

“It’s for people who love sports, but don’t go to games or can’t sit through a live match,” says Matti Kochavi, Heed co-founder and chairman. “We use facial recognition technology, along with video and audio analytics and social media, so that the app alerts the user when a significant moment of the game is happening.”

The basketball players wear ‘smart shirts’ with sensors on the back, while coaches have tech bracelets to measure stress levels, so when a crucial point is scored, or the game comes to a climax, the user is alerted either to a small number of videos provided by the app or told to go to a TV screen. “It’s like a robot watching the game for you,” says Kochavi.

And the Euroleague loves it. Roser Queralto, the Euroleague’s chief business officer, told the SportsPro conference earlier this year: “We wanted the players to understand that the days in which they were only playing, those are over. They need to be active and they need to embrace the new technology. It’s a new project. We want to give our fans new options to see and enjoy the game and we said ‘let’s go for it’.”