Can mobile sports content thrive solely behind a paywall?

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on August 16, 2013

From The News Desk

This weekend marks the beginning of the United Kingdom's soccer season (or as they like to call it "football"). On the heels of this event is the release of the latest British sports app, with the hopes of capitalizing on the country's football fever.

The Sun, the United Kingdom's beloved tabloid, inked a deal last January with the English Premier Football League (EPL) with exclusive rights to all of the league's mobile and online distribution rights. With this deal the news outlet has released its new mobile content app, Sun+ Goals, and this weekend marks the first time users can see it really in action.

It's a pretty straightforward app, providing users access to match highlights, statistics, and other video and secondary content. In addition, it is also partnered with the Sun's news app, Sun+, thus providing users with both news and sports highlights.

But here's the real issue: the Sun's content is locked behind a paywall. The Sun made this move earlier this month, and has decided to include its sporting app as well. This move, along with other new programs, shows the media company trying to boost paywall subscriptions by offering such "exclusive" content. The real question that remains is, will British users be willing to pay for this kind of access?

While the content is exclusive, there are only a few facets of it that seem truly enticing. Up until now, most sporting apps have been free to use, providing users with post-game highlights and statistics. In the US, both the NBA and MLB apps are available for free, and are generally helpful for post-game highlights or real-time score checking. I will note that MLB At Bat 13 does have a subscription fee for additional features, but it also offers a free "lite" version for all users, and a good one at that. The PGA app works similarly too, providing a free score-checking version or streaming live footage for users with certain cable subscriptions.

What the Sun is banking on the exclusive content it can air given its deal with the EPL. While apps like NBA Game Time do provide footage after the game, Game+ Goals will provide footage "just after the action happens." So instead of waiting for the game to end to view highlights, users will be able to keep tabs and see up-to-date events.

But is that enough? According to Rob Evans, founder the App Business (the makers of Sun+ Goals), he "wanted the app to be the UK’s first screen for Premier League action." I'm skeptical that providing highlights up to the moment will do just that. The entire game is not being shown, and users will instead have to wait from clip to clip. In addition, The Next Web noted that due to UEFA these "near-real-time" won't be available for primetime Saturday afternoon matches. So when users probably most want to keep tabs, they won't be able to access the real-time aspect of the product. Given these reservations, it's hard to believe that users will want to purchase a subscription. In addition, Barclays Football offers a free app with highlights akin to the other league apps.

This is an experiment on the Sun's part; if it does succeed perhaps we'll be seeing more paywalled action of this kind. And that would be sad for me because I am a frequent free app-checker for scores. The Sun is hoping that having the app behind the paywall will boost subscriptions given the country's ravenous love for the sport, but it may actually have the opposite effect. And, to be honest, such a paywall does seem a bit far-fetched for the kind of content the Sun is offering.