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If BlackBerry is able to return to prominence among mobile consumers with its new BlackBerry 10 operating system, sports will be among the major reasons why.
BlackBerry, renamed from Research In Motion, last week in New York formally unveiled its long-expected comeback bid, the BlackBerry 10 mobile operating system, along with two handsets designed to compete much better against current smartphone industry stalwarts from Apple’s iOS system and Google’s Android platform.
Not surprisingly, sports applications were among the key tenets of the BlackBerry reboot. MLB Advanced Media, the NHL, PGA Tour, ESPN, UFC and CBS Sports were among the sports brands immediately committing to build applications for the BlackBerry 10 platform. Given that sports fans routinely overindex on mobile consumption compared with general consumers, the applications will be among the key drivers of BlackBerry’s traffic once its new devices become available in Canada beginning this week, and in the U.S. in March.
BlackBerry was to buttress its relaunch with its first Super Bowl ad over the weekend.
But the question is whether BlackBerry’s move will be sufficient to revive the once-prominent company. BlackBerry holds about 5 percent of the global smartphone market it helped originate and popularize, roughly one-tenth the market share it held at its peak.
For MLBAM, an early supporter of RIM, the shift is similarly stark. In 2009, BlackBerry devices generated half of MLB.com’s overall mobile traffic. By 2011, the percentage fell to 20 percent and has continued to fall since. But company officials last week were enthused at the introduction of a BlackBerry platform capable of running a full version of its award-winning At Bat mobile application.
And for MLBAM, like many other properties and sports media entities, a key goal is offering platform parity in which an individual user’s smartphone experience with baseball is the same regardless of the device.
“For the first time, we’ve got a BlackBerry capable of delivering everything fans have come to expect from At Bat, most notably the MLB.TV video,” said Adam Ritter, MLBAM senior vice president of wireless. “That’s exciting news, and we think having another full-featured operating system out there is only a positive for consumers.”
The NHL is similarly optimistic. In Canada, BlackBerry’s home country and obviously a key market for hockey with seven NHL clubs, the company’s decline has been far less precipitous, with recent estimates pegging its market share there at 27 percent, compared with 29 percent for iOS and 36 percent for Android.
Also critical to the BlackBerry relaunch is an overhaul of BlackBerry World, its application marketplace.
“We had a BlackBerry app two years ago, and it got a lot of downloads, but not many upsells because it wasn’t frictionless and the in-store experience wasn’t great,” said Chris Golier, NHL vice president of mobile marketing and strategy. The league was part of the BlackBerry launch event last week, and has built a native BlackBerry 10 app with the aid of partner NeuLion. The NHL last week also renewed its North American sponsorship deal with BlackBerry.
The USA Today Sports Media Group has struck a strategic partnership with LockerDome in which the St. Louis-based, sports-oriented social media network will become part of the USA Today Sports Digital Properties network.
LockerDome seeks to blend elements of sports digital media — including team fan sites, management portals for youth sports teams and athlete-driven social media — into a hub. The site has partnerships with hundreds of individual pro athletes and sports entities, including Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Dime Magazine and sporting goods brand Rawlings.
USA Today Sports Media Group will sell advertising in LockerDome’s network, and the two entities are developing content initiatives for the coming year. Financial terms were not disclosed, but the pact will be based upon revenue sharing. The deal is for calendar year 2013 with a potential of additional terms.
“The LockerDome guys bring a highly engaged social audience that will be very attractive to our advertisers,” said Chris Pirrone, general manager of digital sports properties for the USA Today Sports Media Group. “But we also see big opportunity to feed in some of our content, both from our national-level material and content from the [Gannett Co.-owned] local outlets, into these hyper-focused communities of theirs.”
The USA Today Sports Digital Properties network comprises more than 200 outlets that are either owned outright by the company or are represented by USA Today Sports Media Group in some fashion for advertisers. The entity is one of three main pillars of the USA Today Sports Media Group, joining the national-level newspaper and more than 100 Gannett-owned local newspapers and TV stations.
LockerDome’s investors and advisers include Brian and Carol Matthews, co-founders of industry pioneer CDM Fantasy Sports, and former Universal sports and AOL Sports executive Carlos Silva. The company’s connections to the fantasy sports industry, particularly Silva in his current role as managing director and entrepreneur-in-residence at sports investment bank Park Lane, led to a contact with USA Today Sports Media Group.
LockerDome will become part of USA Today Sports Media Group’s traffic within third-party measurement reports such as comScore. USA Today Sports Media Group in December ranked fifth in reach among U.S. sports sites with an audience of 20.7 million unique users.
“Putting a very fast-growing entity like us with one of the biggest outfits in the industry is going to create some really meaningful lift,” said Gabe Lozano, LockerDome founder and chief executive.