Like many avid sports fans, Shailo Rao, Sagar Savant and Vam Makam are well-familiar with how frustrating it can be to find quality, relevant sports content - especially on Twitter and other social media. Rao tells me over coffee that, as a PhD student at Stanford, he spent years trying to create and maintain a single realtime feed of content he actually cared about. Because no company or publication was addressing this at the time, he was forced to manually curate a huge roster of RSS feeds from his favorite websites and Twitter accounts.
Not only was that process extremely time-consuming, but with people shifting to native apps, mobile websites, the growth of the unfiltered interest graph on Twitter (sports updates mixed with tech coverage, for example) and the explosion of sports coverage, the RSS feed approach just doesn't make sense.
Unable to find a better solution, the three amigos decided to build their own at StartX, the startup accelerator program affiliated with Stanford. This week, the team launched its first product, Beyond The Box, an iPad app that allows sports fans to curate real-time coverage, players updates and analysis from their favorite sports teams in one centralized timeline. You can think of it as TweetDeck on steroids - for sports.
Now, I've been a little skeptical of the second (and third and fourth and fifth) screen revolution. To be fair, it's a real phenomenon and will continue to grow - I frequently watch baseball with Twitter open on my iPad - but I'm not sure it's as big (right now) as the media would have us think. However, a January report from Nielsen on “mobile sports” included an eye-opening and perhaps telling statistic: Today, nearly 60 percent of smartphone and tablet users access sports content on their device - at least once a day.
It's for that very reason that the founders decided to start with the iPad to offer sports fans curated news, analysis, rumors, video, photos and player commentary in the same timeline-style feed that has become so familiar thanks to social media. The timeline curates content from more than 1,000 media sources and 2,000 players, ranking and analyzing sources based on a number of signals, including popularity, relevancy, and so on. In turn, it allows fans to personalize their feed to focus updates from their favorite teams and players.
This means that fans can get access before these quotes show up on radio, blogs, or on CNN. Furthermore, offering access to updates that come straight from players gives it a big point of differentiation from ESPN and Turner Sports coverage, for example. In this way, Beyond The Box deserves credit for attempting to go beyond the content boxes, walled gardens and content restrictions found on so many sports media properties, like ESPN's Sports Center Feed or Bleacher Report's Team Stream.
The app enables users to view coverage of the four major sports from both national and local media analysts and outlets, as well as from over 300 local team blogs, thanks to its pulling in content from SB Nation. As mentioned, the other major point of differentiation is the ability to get updates from players directly, especially those who have strong brands and followings on social media.
These players tend to generate more fan interest than their own team's feeds, like, say LeBron James, who has 7-times more followers on Twitter than the Miami Heat. And it's not just the megastars, as Stephen Curry has 3-times as many followers as his team, the Warriors. This can be a double-edged sword, however, as athletes aren't always known for their incisive tweets and commentary on social media. They do generate interest, but if you're looking for news straight from the analysts, this could be a point of contention. Of course, it's left up to you to curate, so it's fairly easy to avoid.
Going forward, the founders hope to monetize Beyond The Box by leveraging what they see as increasing interest from advertisers in the second-screen viewing experience. Rao says that consumers are increasingly using mobile devices while watching sports - each time there's a time out, commercial break or fans are looking for more insight, for example - which could provide plenty of opportunities to integrate sponsored content or in-stream ads.
While monetization is still a work in progress, it also wouldn't be surprising to see Beyond The Box add in-app purchases for advanced insights for those looking for a leg up in their fantasy leagues.
Next up on the roadmap, the founders say that they want to continue refining the way they curate and process content, as well as adding more breadth. Integrating more multimedia content, like photos and videos, into its timeline could be an easy way to improve the user experience. On the back end, the more big data analysis the app provides, the better it will be able to stand out. And the same can be said for information visualization, like expanding the “box score,” which really hasn't changed in 100-plus years, for example.
These are just a few of the things that Rao says the team is considering as it moves forward. If it can follow through, Beyond The Box could be a winner. As of now, it's off to a great start, but there are plenty of players in this space, from enormous, billion-dollar media brands to startups like SportStream and Chadwick. But, either way, it's a good time to be a sports fan, as these startups are demonstrating that an evolution is underway.
Find Beyond The Box on the App Store here.