Mar 6, 2012
Just a few weeks after I critiqued the CBS Sportsline launch of their “Fantasy Sports API”, ESPN has gone and announced a new API of their own via their new Developer Center. Unless this was a hastily arranged reaction to Sportsline’s move (which is unlikely), this is looking more like a significant trend for sports media companies.
So it’s probably no coincidence that most of the exact same criticisms I had of the Sportsline API are valid here. I’ll go far enough to repeat the exact same homage, which is to salute ESPN for embarking on the fundamental shift in thinking that this represents while also noting that the open API, in its current form, has almost no value.
This might be a good example of lawyers picking it apart a good idea until it becomes worthless. ESPN’s API is far more restrictive than Sportsline’s API, and I spent numerous paragraphs explaining why Sportsline’s API didn’t go far enough.
The only type of data that the API currently offers open access to is headlines. Headlines? Seriously? Every single developer in the world has had completely free access to ESPN’s headlines via RSS for probably close to 10 years. A @sportscenter Twitter feed would serve the same purpose as well. The access to game scores is restricted, yet the outcome of sporting events is legally in the public domain and developers can legally access that data all sorts of places (although not in real time).
And from there, developers must use ESPN branding and are not permitted to monetize the apps via advertising or by charging for the app. This is a non-starter for most any developer.
So developers can’t access anything new or interesting and can’t make any money doing it. Uh huh.
The sad thing is that the “restricted” data looks like it could power some pretty interesting products and pave the way for ESPN to become a platform. But for access to the good stuff, ESPN is requiring a formal partnership of sorts and that’s just not the way that hackers or startups work.
Foursquare was named as one of the startups that has a preferred partnership at launch, using ESPN’s restricted APIs to power user’s ability to “Check in” to sporting events. Foursquare is getting hosed if they are paying money for a formatted list of sporting events. And for this effort to be successful, ESPN will need bootstrapped startups and hackers playing with the data first, not just “startups” like Foursquare that have $700M valuations and functional business development teams that seek out formal partnerships.
Hopefully ESPN is just easing into this, because what was launched publicly today is much ado about nothing. Yet such potential….
note: I found the following hilarious take in a comment on Hacker News. For those of you unfamiliar with computer code (the language of developers), this is computer code that succinctly agrees with the rest of this blog post. Enjoy:
if(ESPN_API.CommercialApplications == NOT_ALLOWED)
// Work for free to further ESPN brand
// Can't make any money
// Now they are being realistic
// We can all make some money
If any other developers have thoughts or reactions about this please leave them in the comments.
Jan 17, 2012
Big news yesterday in the Fantasy Sports world with CBS Sports announcing the availability of an API for a new Fantasy Sports platform. Or it’s intended to be big news, as evidenced by splashy headlines in Techcrunch (A Fantasy App Store; CBS Sports To Launch “First Open Platform” For Fantasy Sports), the Wall Street Journal (CBS Sports Opens Site To App Makers) and Sports Business Journal (CBS Sports Eyes Bold Fantasy Stroke).
One reason I’ve blogged less here recently is that I’ve been heads down working on a startup in the Fantasy sports space, so this is no doubt exciting news that validates much about what we think about the future of the Fantasy sports space. That being said, it looks likely that the intent here will have a greater impact than the actual offering. I’ll explain further.
In September 2010, I answered a question on Quora asking “What have been the major innovations in fantasy football products over the past 5-10 years?“. Part of my (now dated) answer reads:
“The answer is there haven’t been any major innovations in fantasy football….The incumbents can’t or aren’t interested in innovating. The market is dominated by ESPN and Yahoo, with Sportsline the third player and at last check, no one else was even close. None of those companies would be confused with innovative companies (sorry, Yahoo).”
As CBSSports.com SVP and GM Jason Kint noted in the SBJ article:
“The fantasy sports experience simply hasn’t evolved as much as we’d like in the last decade…What we’re trying to do is create an ecosystem and accelerate the next wave of innovation in the industry.”
At least CBS Sports is now trying to up the ante. And that intent is a potential sea change.
But as I also noted in my Quora answer…
“Collectively, the business model for [the providers] has been to offer the game itself free and upsell premium content and services and drive high-value page views.”
This shouldn’t be surprising, given that all the major incumbent providers are old-school media companies with walled garden business models, not to be confused with the open, data driven Internet companies that typify successful platforms. (Apple being the obvious and notable exception).
Obviously, the CBS Sports PR folks emphasized the words “open” and “data” and “platform” in getting the story to Techcrunch, WSJ and SBJ. But the reality is that the combination of “open” and “data” are not compatible with their walled garden business.
And as YouTube’s Hunter Walk noted in a recent blog post: “You don’t get to decide if you are a platform“.
“A platform doesn’t just mean that others can integrate or use your services, it means you have a compelling technical and business proposition which creates enough value for both you and developers to run sustainable and competitive businesses.”
That’s where this effort may fall short of its intended impact. The API is open only for developing with CBS Fantasy Sports data within the CBS Sports ecosystem. It’s not “open” if it’s limited to and kept within a tightly defined ecosystem.
And that has far more limited potential.
For starters, some significant majority of the users in the fantasy sports space exist outside of the CBS Sports ecosystem. And some significant majority of the data that exists in the fantasy sports world exists outside of the CBS Sports ecosystem (not to mention a significant amount of the data inside the CBS Sports ecosystem, such as an NFL player’s statistics for any given game, is legally in the public domain). And CBS wants an Apple-esque 30% revenue split.
Are there enough users, enough revenue potential as well as enough value in partial data from a closed ecosystem to create the developer mindshare and app ecosystem required for a successful platform? That remains to be seen. There are already plenty of (mostly poor quality) fantasy apps available in the Apple and Android/Chrome app stores and none have achieved any real critical mass to date (outside of some traction with free, native app versions of the fantasy game from the incumbent providers), and those app ecosystems are many orders of magnitude bigger than the CBS Sports app ecosystem.
Despite CBS’ PR claims, they are not the first or even the second company in the space to offer a “Fantasy platform”. Yahoo offers a similar restricted API with even more onerous “non commerical terms” while longtime independent provider MyFantasyLeague.com has been offering an open and free API for years. The opportunity to build 3rd party apps existed before this announcement.
I don’t want to be overly negative, because this is a big step in the right direction, but it just feels like CBS Sports’ efforts to keep the ecosystem closed is only an incremental step better than the “non commercial” API offering from Yahoo. There’s a “defensive” trend there, an acknowledgement that there’s value in the data yet an unwillingness to make it truly “open”.
But this effort does show a willingness on CBS Sports part to innovate and that will force the hands of their competitors as we’re getting closer to the tipping point where these walled gardens won’t be able to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
It should be noted that CBS has had some recent success in playing defense and holding on tightly to their existing competitive advantages(See: CBS and Hulu) and that there are an impressive set of launch partners, including Bloomberg Sports, Rotowire and MLB Advanced Media.
This will likely achieve CBS Sports’ goal of spurring innovation in the space, but whether or not they have the market positioning or necessary agility to capture all the resulting value remains to be seen.
Regardless there’s no doubt that there is ample opportunity for entrepreneurs in the Fantasy sports space.
Oct 19, 2011
I had written previously about the NBA player exhibitions, and how I thought the entrepreneurs who were running them were weakening the NBA owners’ bargaining position. And while that was technically true, it was never going to be enough to combat the leverage held by the powerful David Stern. The NBA owners aren’t losing money, as this blog post shows, but they have enough leverage and there is enough money at stake to make the players and fans suffer to increase their profit margins. Sad, but true.
A great summary of the NBA League finances, as compared to other professional sports franchises, by the incomparable fivethirtyeight blog at the NY Times.
The key takeaway:
Instead, independent estimates of the N.B.A. financial condition reflect a league that has grown at a somewhat tepid rate compared to other sports, and which has an uneven distribution of revenues between teams — but which is fundamentally a healthy and profitable business. In addition, it is not clear that growth in player salaries, which has been modest compared to other sports and which is strictly pegged to league revenue, is responsible for the league’s difficulties.
Oct 18, 2011
The infographic I posted on the Fantasy Sports Economy turned out to be pretty popular, so here’s another cool infographic from Kwarter. Helpful stats to put the penetration of social media and sports in context.
Kwarter Social Sports Application
Oct 5, 2011
How big is Fantasy Sports? Bigger than you think. I’ve been working on a Fantasy Sports startup that I’m not ready to talk about here just yet, so I’ll just let this picture do the talking for now. You’ll have to click on it to see the full image.