Why ESPN’s Developer Center Launch Is Worthless

Why ESPN’s Developer Center Launch Is Worthless


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
    ESPN.GoPoundSand(TRUE);
  }
  else
  {
    // Now they are being realistic
    // We can all make some money
    ESPN.MaybeYouHaveADeal(TRUE);
  }

If any other developers have thoughts or reactions about this please leave them in the comments.