TheScore brings mobile-first storytelling to sports news. Legacy publishers should take note

By Michael Carney , written on November 19, 2013

From The News Desk

Content consumption is just different on mobile. Between the limits imposed by small screen sizes and the fact that users are often on the go and pressed for time, standard Web consumption experiences are ill-suited to this new form factor. But, this should be obvious by now. Yet in many categories, publishers are still struggling to determine the best solution to mobile. And this is particularly true in the sports category.

Traditional sports coverage, either online or on TV, has been a combination of long form editorial, video analysis, stats dashboards, and scoreboards. But only stats, when presented cogently, and scoreboards lend themselves to the mobile experience. So that’s all we’ve gotten on mobile from most legacy publishers. ESPN, Yahoo, Fox, and NBC, among others, have popular sports apps that focus first and foremost on scores, with analysis, when available, relegated to traditional long-form editorial – a less than stellar experience. This is one reason why Twitter has become so popular among sports fans.

TheScore has bucked this trend by delivering what it calls a “stackable and snackable” news format on mobile, something it recently introduced with a September update of its iOS app. (A similar Android update is coming soon.) Essentially, the company boils down news stories to short-form analysis – longer than a tweet, but shorter than a traditional article – and links related stories together into “story stacks” so that they can be consumed in concert. It’s very much inspired by Circa, and perhaps Summly, but obviously with an emphasis on sports.

The company published between 300 to 400 “story stacks” per day. These “story stacks” regularly include a combination of written content, photos, videos, scores, and stats. Users can click on individual stories each stack to go deeper into more traditional long-form content, if they choose, but shouldn’t feel like they’re missing out if they don’t, founder John Levy says, reiterating that these are more than mere teasers. Users can also customize their experience to emphasize their favorite sports, leagues, teams, or players.

Levy’s family founded Score Media, Canada’s answer to ESPN, in 1994 and was a pioneer in mobile publishing, as the first to deliver sports news to flip phones by way of SMS, he says. In 2012, Levy sold Score Media’s TV business to Rogers Media and spun out the company’s digital assets, including its already mobile apps.

“We wanted to concentrate on understanding and addressing young sports audiences,” Levy says.

TheScore now has 5 million active users, a figure that’s growing 30 percent year over year, according to Levy. Nearly 70 percent of these users are based in the US, while 20 percent are in Canada and the balance are spread around the English speaking world.

Levy believes that TheScore’s popularity growth is directly attributable to its adoption of mobile-first storytelling, something that legacy publishers have been hesitant to do out of fear that it will devalue their existing newsroom infrastructure, he says.

TheScore has built its own Bleacher Report-style newsroom comprised out hundreds of local contributors focused on aggregating and distilling news stories down to bite-sized chunks. The company also invested in its own proprietary CMS that Levy says allows it to be more responsive to breaking news and allows these contributors to easily publish compelling multi-media stories tailored for mobile consumption.

Given TheScore’s surging popularity, expect to see a response from its well funded and widely-followed legacy competitors. ESPN has seemingly too much talent and too many resources – not to mention too much content – at its disposal not to get mobile right. The company has already proven to be a major innovator on the Web. The same might be said of Yahoo and Fox, which is making an enormous investment into its new Fox Sports 1 TV franchise.

Levy’s digital sports spinout raised a fresh $16 million venture capital round in May of this year and is starting to generate meaningful revenue. The apps serve approximately 20 million ad impressions daily, according to the CEO, and will generate revenue of $5.3 million in 2013. The company’s investors include Relay Ventures, Levfam Holdings, and Rogers Media.

Given the real-time nature of sports, it’s certainly a category that lends itself to on the go consumption. But the question is, where is that magic line in the sand between just enough information and information overload? Where is that balance between comprehensive and digestible?

TheScore has put forth a compelling answer to these questions, though we are only just beginning to explore what’s possible (and practical) on mobile devices. I for one am excited to see what the industry comes up with next.