The first pitches of the 2020 Major League Baseball season will be thrown on Thursday night, as the Opening Night games kick off between the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals, and the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers. As with all major sports since the pandemic hit, this baseball season is going to be significantly different. The number of games has been cut to 60, teams are starting with 30-man rosters (up from 26) presumably for some buffer if anyone tests positive for COVID-19.
But perhaps the most stark difference will be the empty stadiums.
Soccer leagues around the world, as well as Korean baseball, have given us a taste of what live sports looks like with no fans present, but for many Americans it won’t really hit home until they see it during an MLB or NBA game. That missing element in the live experience only adds to the challenge for broadcasters to make the at-home fan experience as great as it possibly can be.
Fox Sports is using MLB’s opening weekend as a launchpad for its new, redesigned mobile app and website. Fox Sports’ head of digital, David Katz, says that the broadcaster is trying to reimagine the sports app and website for a modern fan.
“We already have an app and a website, and like a lot of apps and websites in the marketplace, we feel like they did an okay job at solving the needs of sports fans over the last 10 years,” says Katz. “None of what we see in the marketplace is forward-thinking about how the consumption patterns of fans have changed, and where the user experiences have gone. A lot of that innovation happens in areas outside of sports.”
A social-infused user experience
Katz gave Fast Company a prelaunch walk-through of the app, and it’s trying to take the best of social and magazine art direction—forget little thumbnail photos—and merge it with the familiarity of social media behavior.
For example, news stories appear in a carousel with Instagram Stories-like hashmarks at the top of the screen. In a nod to Tinder, users can swipe left and right to find the stories they like most.
The stories themselves are not text heavy, but purposely use a lot of embeds, from video to social, to break up the text and give fans both reporting and social commentary around the games, teams, and players they’re interested in.
“We’ve been really strong on social media for the last few years,” says Katz. “In many respects, we put our best stuff on social media. With this product, we have an opportunity to bring the best of what Fox Sports does into an owned-and-operated environment. Previous products really didn’t allow for that. So one of the goals was to get the best of what we do into a new environment.”
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the new app is the game experience.
Obviously, you can watch any of the many leagues and sports Fox Sports holds rights to—NFL, MLB, FIFA World Cup, NASCAR, WWE, USGA, MLS, and more—but for many fans, the second screen has become the most important accessory, following along across social and other news about the game in real-time. Here, Fox Sports has split its game experience into three parts: pre-game, in-game, and post-game.
Click on a game before it starts, and you get a curated feed of stats, news, and social posts talking about the matchups. If you’re waiting for a Red Sox/Yankees game to start, you’ll see a mix of both Boston and New York media breaking down the matchup, not just Fox Sports content.
This is a big part of what Katz is talking about when he says bringing everything you want into an owned-and-operated environment. Instead of having to click in and out of the app to check up on all this information, it’s all right there.
This continues when the game starts.
Sure, you can watch it horizontally for maximum screen size, but vertically it locks into place at the top, while you can scroll through social, news, and updates below—without missing a second of the game.
The real development here is how the new app also allows you to check out multi-cam and alternative view footage of the game in real-time, while still watching the traditional feed.
“One of the goals here was to rethink about how live video fits in the midst of news and information in real-time,” says Katz. “We think this is a game changer for us, and very hopeful to have this ready for when the Major League Baseball season starts.”
Depending on the game and event, the app will also integrate some of its original digital content into these feeds. During the most recent Super Bowl, Fox Sports put together legendary NFL quarterbacks like Joe Montana, Brett Favre, and Drew Brees to watch and comment on the game as it happened for an online show called Watch Party.
For the World Series, for example, fans will be able to watch the game but also check out the network’s Watch Party at the same time.
While planning and development for the new app and site began long before the pandemic, but Katz says the global health crisis has simply accelerated many of the trends in fan behavior that they’ve been tracking.
“Now think about how people are watching games and other streams simultaneously, talking to others through text, social, Zoom, whatever, during the game,” says Katz. “We are a very interconnected world, and community means something different. It used to mean physically going to a place. Now it’s a series of shared experiences, virtually. It’s all changed and evolved. So what we’ve tried to do is build a shell to allow these things to happen, so you as a fan don’t have to go to 15 places to have these experiences.”
While Fox is a major player in televised sports, its digital game is still very much an underdog. Recent sports app rankings have it trailing rivals like ESPN, NBC Sports, and Bleacher Report.
Katz isn’t predicting miracles, but is confident these new digital products are a major step in the right direction.
“Time will tell, and this will evolve,” says Katz. “We come to this with humility because we’ve not been a dominant player, with our app and website, for a very, very long time. We’re not expecting to throw this out there and it suddenly changes everything for us. We have to earn it over a long period of time, and this is the beginning of that process. We have to earn the trust of fans.”