After Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Paul Allen was eager to check in on his team and dissect all the action. The Microsoft co-founder doesn't own shares of the Miami Heat or the Oklahoma City Thunder, despite the latter sharing Seattle roots with Allen. And the Portland Trailblazers, which he bought back in the 1980s, whiffed on the playoffs after losing nine of its last 10 games. Rather, startup SportStream, which Allen’s company Vulcan jump-started last fall with $3.5 million, just launched its first product, an iPad app.
In the increasingly competitive field of social-media filters and aggregators that includes CrowdCloud, Fancloud, and Hootsuite, SportStream aims to be a clever one-stop, second-screen destination, the digital equivalent of a lively sports bar that also employs a discriminating bouncer to ensure the right mix.
While many sites and services gather commentary around a topic, "We filter the noise," says SportStream co-founder and CEO Will Hunsinger—even noise within the topic. Its proprietary software compiles established voices in sports and analyzes those tweets and those of ordinary fans to identify which ones are most relevant to a given game. It weeds out people opining on high temperatures in Miami and speculating about storms in Oklahoma City as well as Heat and Thunder fans who are ranting off-topic.
To Allen, who's worth $14 billion and ranks as the 20th richest person in the U.S., according to Forbes, the investment may be a pittance but he's following SportStream closely. When Fast Company reached Hunsinger on Friday, Allen had just emailed him. "He was asking me the same questions you’re asking: How's the app doing? How are people using it?" Hunsinger said. "This endeavor is near and dear to his own interests, so it's much more than a normal board investor check-in."
SportStream’s opening day was Thursday, starting at 3 a.m. That's when co-founder and senior vice president of marketing Bob Morgan got out of bed to activate the app in iTunes. How exactly do you flip the switch in the mega-marketplace? There's not much to it. A few clicks to set the go-live date, following Apple's approval, and it'll appear automatically. You can do it in advance. Morgan insisted on doing it manually, just to be sure. At 3:30 a.m., he got a text from an equally anxious Hunsinger. Instead of going back to sleep, they waited, like a couple of expectant cooks, their eyes glued to the door of their new restaurant.
SportStream includes play-by-play, allowing you to quickly tweet about a specific highlight.
SportStream shows the day's schedule of NBA and MLB games on an elegant iPad interface (the iPhone app and NFL games are coming later this year). If you check in to Game 4 of the NBA Finals tonight, you can alert your Facebook friends or Twitter followers, share your prediction, and see a stream of tweets specific to the action. Some are from the 5,000 or so authoritative voices—Hunsinger calls it the uber stream, made up of sports journalists, bloggers, players, even parody sites—that SportStream has amassed. Other comments come from fans. The software rates every tweet according to its relevance and unlike say a hashtag search on Twitter, not everyone makes the cut to appear in the stream. "That part is pretty tricky," says Morgan, who's as tight-lipped about his semantic algorithm as Stephen Strasberg is about his curve ball.
It’s no wonder Allen sees a business opportunity. According to Forrester, as many as 85% of tablet owners make a daily habit of using the TV and tablet simultaneously; according to Nielsen, an equal percentage of smartphone owners double-dip using their screens at times. Along with TV shows, sports continues to be one of the most tweeted-about topics. Last year’s Super Bowl set the sports record, with 12,233 tweets per second. That’s a lot of noise.
After checking in to a game, you see the corresponding tweet stream and can converse with other SportStreamers.
In addition to the filtered conversation, you can join a group chat with other fans, post your comments directly to Twitter or Facebook, and review an up-to-date box score. Hunsinger, a former VP at Gap online, and Morgan, a senior VP at Evri, another Vulcan investment, want to make multi-tasking with a TV and a second screen less taxing. "We want to simplify so you can get back in the game," says Morgan. SportStream includes dynamic hashtags—the appropriate team and league abbreviations—to facilitate posting. The company plans to add them for players as well when you scroll over a box score. And in one nifty short-cut, you extract a key moment from the play-by-play account and riff on it to the chat group, Facebook or Twitter: "Derek Fisher Shooting Foul (James Jones draws the foul)…on a 3 pointer—Doh!"
One of Allen's questions to Hansinger echoes that of fans who downloaded the iPad app throughout the days: When's the iPhone app coming out? Soon, say Hunsinger and Morgan. Ditto for revenue. The app is free, but they plan to offer a premium version for subscribers and to integrate sponsorships.
Like other app outfits, SportStream is wrestling with how much control to give fans. As the audience grows, Morgan says, they'll eventually be able to create customized chat rooms with their buddies only. Some early users have asked to limit the comments stream to the people they follow. After all, as popular as Bill Simmons is, not everyone wants to read him wax about his hometown Celtics and Red Sox.
"Quite frankly we're still exploring what the right approach is," says Hansinger. "We want this to be for the fans, by the fans."