Benjie Levy is not your typical sports media mogul.
When his father, John, launched a national sports TV network in Canada in the mid-'90s, the place was very different from its competitors. "Our broadcasters didn’t look anything like traditional broadcasters," recalls the younger Levy, who joined the team in 2001. "They didn’t wear suits and ties. They wore T-shirts and jeans." The network’s audience skewed male, and about 10 to 15 years younger than the audiences of competitors. Early on, the network embraced digital technology, building its first mobile app back in 2005, when the iPhone was a glimmer in Steve Jobs’s eye. Levy and company saw enough interest way back in that mobile prehistory that the company was ready to pounce when the iPhone finally did launch.
"As we iterated over a period of years," says Levy, "tens of thousands of users became hundreds of thousands became millions." Levy’s aims were modest: to do well in Canada, using the TV network as a marketing platform for the app. But soon, he and his team began to see something remarkable. "We were growing outside of Canada, particularly in the U.S. market." Over half of users of the app—now called theScore, over which Levy currently presides as COO—came from the States. "We started to get excited about the prospect: How do we take our business and create an amazing mobile experience for sports fans?" Levy recalls.
In 2012, theScore decided to focus 100% of their efforts on mobile, selling off the TV business. Today, it has one of the leading sports apps, with 5 million monthly active users (an often tricky group to track) reported in the spring, and with "exciting growth" since then, says Levy.
While TheScore has a broader focus on sports generally, it enters a field crowded with apps devoted specifically to the World Cup, as Fast Company noted recently. Other favored apps include FotMob, WatchESPN, and Univision Deportes.
If you were to walk around theScore’s offices, you’d find what Levy calls a "mobile news room," a team of 35 editors and writers tasked with "creating content with the mobile screen top-of-mind." What that boils down to are shorter-form pieces with layered multimedia content. Levy paints a picture of the sort of content that BuzzFeed has made hugely popular, and that you’ll now find all sorts of journalistic outlets: "short bursts of editorial layered with animated GIFs or embedded tweets." Levy calls his staff "young people in their 20s and 30s," many fresh out of journalism school and without set ways of how a news organization should operate. "We’ve given them the tools and tech to allow them to unleash their creativity and create the best possible content for this screen."
In practice, creating content for theScore means by and large reshuffling content that comes from somewhere else. TheScore plays the typical upstart news organization’s game of linking and commenting, eschewing the expensive proposition of sending reporters to cover events firsthand. Reporters and editors glean facts and stats from other sources, putting together a summary report, and linking to the relevant content. TheScore has inked photo deals with several major organizations to provide images with posts. "It’s not so vital for us to have boots on the ground," says Levy, echoing the sentiment of most wildly successful media entrepreneurs today. The real money is often in repackaging, as even the mighty New York Times has been struggling to learn.
TheScore has made a custom-built content management system specifically for mobile, and Levy says the company has gotten innovative about creating new ways to visualizes the facts it aggregates—an animation showing from what point on the field a goal was scored, for instance. Levy says theScore currently has a "World Cup War Room" forming a subset within the mobile news room.
TheScore sits in a curious space between technology company and media company; and it is a curious mix between social network and news source. A prominent feature of the app is called, Facebook-style, the "Feed," which combines game data, fantasy league data, and editorial content into a single view. To accommodate its younger audience, several months ago theScore included WhatsApp integration into the theScore, so that users can share theScore content over that platform as well as others like email and SMS. "It’s another example of how we’re dedicated to serving a younger audience and being forward-focused," says Levy. "We were the first major mobile sports app to do WhatsApp integration."
Those interested in the future of news, and in the ways in which technology has become news and news has become technology, could do worse than to study theScore. "We find ourselves at the intersection of media and technology," says Levy. "We wanted to create powerful tools for our users, and it was a really organic thought process" that led to where the app is today. "We were trying to solve the problems for people who have two minutes and want to get up to date on sports, but if it’s a two- or three-thousand-word article, they’re just not going to get through that."