Chat Sports goes mobile, pokes at the impersonal and anti-social nature of legacy sports news players

By Michael Carney , written on March 11, 2014

From The News Desk

Many users have been visiting for nearly 15 years, and yet after all that time, the site still doesn’t know their favorite team or favorite league – or, more likely, it does but takes no advantage of this fact. That this lack of personalization is the same on Yahoo Sports, Sports Illustrated, and even Web 2.0 darling Bleacher Report is one of the major failures of the incumbent digital sports news and content category.

It’s also at the core of the problem Chat Sports founder James Yoder was looked to solve after considering his ideal sports news experience in 2011. After subsequently interviewing dozens of sports fanatics he settled on what he feels are the key shortcomings in this multi-billion dollar category.

“We’ve been been focused since the day we launched on leading in personalization, leading in design and user experience, and leading in making sports news social,” Yoder says.

In addition to delivering the same experience to every user, Yoder laments that the look and functionality of these legacy sites also remains largely unchanged since last decade. What’s worse, users have no way of flagging content that their friends should read or having a private discussion around a piece of content – instead they turn to Facebook, Twitter, and read-later services like Pocket for these tasks.

Chat Sports solves each of these problems and today the company extended its product even further, by publicly launching its first ever native mobile app on iOS. The app aims to bring the same personalized, modern, and social experience currently available on the Web and repackage it in a format easily digested on the small screen.

The bulk of the content available on Chat Sports isn’t original, but rather is curated from around the Web from what the company deems the most informed – although not always widely-read – sources. For example, while it certainly taps ESPN and the major local newspapers, it also turns to the blog authorities on individual teams, cities, and leagues. Calling Chat Sports an aggregator in a pejorative sense, however, misses the value that the platform offers its readers.

“The most common thing we hear from people is, ‘You find the best content about my team that I would never find or read otherwise,’” Yoder says.

In total, Chat Sports curates roughly 10,000 pieces of written content per day from 3,000 different online sources, approximately half of which are blogs. The site also produces thousands of pieces of original content each month through internship-like partnerships with journalism schools around the nation. This is not the focus of the platform, but allows Chat Sports to address topics of high interest and to more effectively drive search traffic to its site where the real product can shine.

Through a combination of programmatic and manual filtering, only the best pieces of content make it onto the platform and all are tagged and organized according to subject. In this way, Chat Sports is able to deliver a unique and comprehensive experience to every fan.

Users can follow teams and leagues and receive push notifications when news and scores are available. More unique to Chat Sports, users can also follow one another and receive notifications when they read or comment on a piece of content or view in-article flags when a piece has already been read by a friend. Visiting a friend’s profile gives a list of their recent reading activity. In this way, superfans can guide the content consumption of their followers and friends can engage in discussions around the same pieces of content.

The social experience is great in concept, but needs a little refining if it’s to live up to its true potential. The platform’s follow recommendations leave a lot to be desired and it’s too difficult otherwise to find interesting users to follow. Also, commenting remains somewhat confusing and disjointed, with competing conversations taking place on the individual article pages on their sources sites and within Chat Sports own social layer – not to mention sharing out to social giants. It’s not as straightforward as it could be, and thus the experience leaves something to be desired. Shortcomings aside, the product is good and as young as the company is, these things should improve over time.

It’s no easy task to shoehorn this product into a native mobile wrapper and maintain the same level of user experience but Chat Sports has done an impressive job. Yoder notes that the company had to create custom software to ingest and reformat content from the thousands of sources it aggregates.

“We had a number of our beta users tell us, ‘ESPN’s content looks better in your app than it does in their own,’” Yoder says.

In the mobile app, like the website, content is displayed first as a scrolling list of cards consisting of a single featured image and the article headline. The card also indicates the source, relevant tags, estimated reading time, and number of comments. Clicking through reveals the full piece of content in Chat Sports' own proprietary layout with relevant links to the original author, source, and comments section. The app is then divided into feeds for notifications, (favorite) team news, popular, and local.

Chat Sports is not monetizing its product yet, and, in fact, continues to serve up any desktop ad units displayed on the original sites from which it sources content. On the desktop, the company is able to maintain the original look and feel of the content it aggregates. On mobile however, the reading experience is far more stripped down. Whether this will land the company in hot water, or whether the company can appease its content partners remains to be seen.

Ultimately, Yoder says Chat Sports plans to generate revenue via a combination of advertising and lead-generation business models, likely beginning in Q2 this year. But because it sources content from external publishers, the company will need to share a portion of all revenue with these partners – making already thin content margins even thinner.

Yoder declined to reveal specific audience statistics beyond the fact that the site saw 3.2 million unique visitors in 2013. He added, however, that the platform is most popular with fans of Michigan football, followed closely by the San Francisco 49ers and Giants, and Ohio State, Alabama, and USC football. When I signed into the site using my Facebook profile, none of my Facebook friends had profiles, suggesting that Chat Sports’ audience is not yet as ubiquitous as it will need to be to threaten the legacy publishers.

The company has raised an as-yet-undisclosed $1.5 million Seed round from backers including Rothenberg Ventures, Apartment List CEO John Kobs, CEO Brad Stroh, Dallas Mavericks President Terdema Ussery, and USAA Insurance board member Matt Schroeder, among others. How far this cash can carry it without meaning monetization is unclear.

Yoder is positioning Chat Sports as a mobile-first company going forward, something he believes makes it unique in the sports news category. “We already see more than 50 percent of our traffic coming from mobile and will be dedicating the bulk of our focus and resources on the mobile platform going forward,” he says.

The legacy players still don’t take mobile seriously, Yoder adds, because they can’t monetize it at the same level as the Web and don’t want to cannibalize their existing businesses – a classic example of the innovator’s dilemma. Chat Sports certainly can’t compete with these giants in resources or reach today, but one advantage of its relative youth and size is that the company can move quickly and get out ahead of major trends like mobile, social, and personalized content.

Mobile, even more so than the Web, is an inherently personal, inherently social platform. Any content experience that ignores these two trends sticks out like a sore thumb. Chat Sports is honing in on what makes consuming sports content – the camaraderie between rabid fans.

If the company can maintain its edge in a crowded category long enough to build and monetize a meaningful audience then this could be the beginning of something lasting. On the other hand, ESPN has been lauded for "getting" digital better than almost any old media brand, making it unlikely that it will ignore personalization and social for long. Also, as the crown jewel in the Disney (not to mention cable TV) portfolio, it isn’t likely to cede mobile to anyone.

Not unlike the Sunday contests it covers, Chat Sports is in for a bruising battle on the business gridiron.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]