Apple’s Interest in Sports is Flying Under the Radar

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In all the news of Apple’s event tomorrow and what’s expected from it and their new hardware that was released this week, an interesting article from Sports Illustrated seems to have gone largely unnoticed. However, it points to some research that Apple is working on regarding tracking sports and eventually turning that into something for their users.

The one quote that seems to be making the rounds out of this piece is Eddy Cue’s comment that Apple isn’t interested in live sports. Here is the full excerpt:

Next week, Apple is expected announce its foray into the streaming business and its upcoming premium video service. The company has reportedly budgeted $1 billion for original content, including a deal with Kevin Durant’s production company for a basketball drama. But don’t expect the tech giant to venture into live broadcasts. Asked how much he’s thinking about competing against Facebook and Amazon (both of which have begun airing games) with exclusive rights, Apple senior vice president for Internet software and services Eddy Cue says, “Not a lot, honestly.”

“That’s not to say we would never do sports, because who the heck knows,” he said. “Never is a long time, but I don’t think that’s a problem right now.” Sports rights are deeply fragmented, with different owners split by platform and region. “You really can’t own all the rights, so therefore at some point you need to solve some other problems,” Cue said. “You can’t design for owning the rights because if that’s the only thing you’re doing you’re always going to be tiny.” And these days, Apple rarely does tiny.

As you can see, it’s a little more complicated than such a simple phrase. According to this article, Apple is looking to do something a little bit different with sports coverage. Rather than focusing on bidding on rights and exclusives, they are looking to serve up near real time highlights and notifications that keep fans in the know and take them where the action is. Cue had an interesting example of the usefulness of such a service:

Searching for an example of its usefulness, he doesn’t turn to any buzzworthy game from the last year. Instead he reaches back for Kobe’s 81-point showing in an otherwise unremarkable Lakers-Raptors game amidst the 2006 NFL playoffs. “It was amazing to watch, but the vast majority even of Lakers fans didn’t see it,” he said. “As a fan, I’ve always looked at it as an opportunity.”

As a sports fan myself, I can’t help but agree. Twitter fills the role for me today, in some respects. But it only works if you are watching the stream 24/7 and that just isn’t realistic.

Apple already does this today to a very small degree. The team that is described in the article has been working to curate the content that appears under the Sports tab in Apple’s TV app. While the content may not belong to Apple, there isn’t much that can’t be found via an app or service that is part of their ecosystem.

For example, I just opened up the TV app on my iPad, which I admittedly very rarely use, and scrolled through the content available today. All of the March Madness games were there. In fact, I’ve gotten a couple of notifications from the TV app when LSU has played, and when Memphis played in the NIT. There were Tennis matches, the women’s tournament, pro and college baseball. I clicked a link to the LSU-Georgia baseball game, which immediately took me to the ESPN app to watch, which I did for a few minutes while writing.

The TV app is interesting, but it is far from a complete solution for a sports fan like me. However, if Cue’s “Sports Ball” team can move it in the direction this article talks about, then I would definitely consider using it. I already have all of my favorite teams in the leagues that are available set up in the TV app and get notifications about them. However, if Apple can go beyond the basic reminders of when games start and end and start to deliver up intelligent notifications about other events or moments that I might be interested in, then I would start using the TV app more to keep up with sports.

The fact that the TV app is pre-installed in both my phone and tablet certainly positions it to be very useful if Apple can turn this sports research into something real. I imagine that most, if not all of the features discussed here will only be available for subscribers of Apple’s new streaming subscription service. They are obviously putting time and money into this effort, so there will have to be a return of some kind. However, if Apple can deliver a near real time highlight and notification system that spans the entire sports landscape, then I might have a little more reason to be interested in what they are doing with streaming media. Right now,  I am still on the fence until we get some real details.

It will be interesting to see if there will be any mention of Apple’s work on sports at their event tomorrow. I get the impression that it may not be, as this article makes it sound like this is still a work in progress. Of course, you may be able to say that about Apple’s entire streaming offer. We will know a lot more about that tomorrow. Until then, it’s time to turn on the TV (the real one) and watch some March Madness.


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