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Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.
Devotees of the latest smart phones — those Swiss Army knives of the Digital Age — all have the “ah-ha moment.” It’s usually within a few days of the upgrade from a regular cell phone. It’s when you realize you are holding something — a bona fide mobile computer — that is truly a lifestyle-changer. It’s when you first think, “Wow, I really don’t need to use my computer, read newspapers and magazines, and watch TV as much as I used to.” It’s when you first go to sleep using the device and wake up using the device — often before you get out of bed. As pundits used to remark in the mid-90s about the Internet, this changes everything, and everything includes sports.
Exactly how will the proliferation of mobile computing affect our industry?
The third screen will dominate consumption of short-form, real-time, community/social-oriented and location-based sports programming.
In the media death battle known as consumer engagement, the smart phone is the weapon of mass destruction vis-à-vis other screens or platforms. With a smart mobile device either on your person or at least within easy reach 24/7, it’s not a fair fight. Mobile devices are always there, almost always on, always generous with what they have to offer, minute-by-minute and day-by-day. While desk or laptop computers are used 2.5 hours a day by average adults (Forrester), mobile computers are carried in pockets and purses 16 hours a day — more than six times as long. And for sports fans, this is nirvana, as all forms of digitized content (stats, news, videos, photos, blog, etc.) can be delivered or found instantly, anytime, anywhere. What’s more, with sophisticated phone applications leveraging built-in technology (e.g., GPS, accelerometer), these devices can do things unimaginable a few years ago.
A new electronic ecosystem is creating a highly democratized content marketplace, driven by natural selection and challenging big brands.
To dramatically increase the usefulness of its hardware, Apple borrowed a technique IBM perfected in the 1960s with mainframe computers: motivating the developer community to build applications for the new device. Apple added an applications section to the wildly popular iTunes store, enabling developers to promote and sell their work, which, in turn, made the device more valuable to consumers, who then bought more and more iPhones and iTouches. Competitors such as RIM /BlackBerry, Google, and Microsoft are quickly following suit. (These downloadable, native apps are generally more useful and appealing than typical WAP/mobile sites.) No surprise, sports is one of the most popular categories in the various app stores. For example, there are hundreds of sports apps in the iTunes store, all prominently featuring (often) constructive user reviews. But here’s the rub: The vast majority of them, easily over 90 percent, are from small, unknown, mostly independent developers who got the readily available software development kit from Apple, then developed and quietly launched apps. Some are brilliant; many are mediocre or worse. But in this giant digital petri dish, the audience decides who wins and loses, brand equity and past successes be damned; functionality and creativity trump all else.
To date, most of the big leagues and major sports brands have done very little, or nothing at all. Notwithstanding various telecom sponsor conflicts that currently exist for leagues and teams, that will have to change once everyone realizes how big, robust and influential this market is becoming. (Without a doubt this development will prompt everyone to rethink the nature and terms of telecom sponsorships.) The numbers alone beg the question: Where are the big sports brands? According to the Pew Research Center, in 2008 shipments of phones with Internet access equaled half of all PCs in use worldwide. And true smart phones generated almost 5 million daily application downloads in December and January. Think about these milestones from Apple alone as of February ’09: more than 25,000 apps in the store and over 600 million downloads in only seven months! Imagine the numbers when the competition really heats up this year.
Smart phones are the in-stadium or in-arena handheld technology devices we’ve all been waiting for.
After many years of various technology companies attempting, mostly unsuccessfully, to bring fan-friendly interactive media into live events, it now seems clear that a mobile computer on a high-speed network, capable of accessing special, password-protected Wi-Fi networks, is the device that will likely win the day in stadiums. And the best news for owners is, the cost of deployment of this technology is almost nil. Fans bring them into the events; owners just need to figure out a content/service play, which can be done inexpensively. While it may not be easy (carrier conflicts), it’s a much more attractive solution than past alternatives.
By all accounts, reaching and engaging consumers effectively in today’s complicated, multiplatform world means offering appealing and highly functional user experiences on all media devices. It’s undoubtedly a big challenge, but the good news is that the mobile platform, more so than any other, dramatically expands consumer engagement opportunities involving content and marketing. And with that comes the opportunity for sports properties and media companies to sell more advertising, monetize premium content within an established commerce framework (e.g., iTunes), and deliver highly targeted and creative marketing programs and promotions. Without question, the long-term impact will be felt throughout the entire industry, and it will be a fascinating thing to watch.
Tom Richardson is president of Convergence Sports & Media, a digital media consulting firm, and managing partner of The Convergence Network, an executive search firm focused on sports. Bill Tallent is the CEO of Mercury Intermedia, a software company specializing in mobile.