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How theScore went from TV underdog to digital titan Add to ...

John Levy was in the app business before the app business was cool. A year before Apple unleashed its App Store, Mr. Levy's sports news network, theScore, was selling sports apps for phones such as Motorola's RAZR.

"It was a crappy business!" recalls Mr. Levy, the CEO and chairman of Score Media Inc . "It was a totally crappy business, because we were getting the sum total of $1.80 or two bucks a month. A third went to the carrier, a third went to the developer, something was left for us - basically nothing. We were looking at our 20,000 subscriptions saying, where in the hell's the business here?"

Now that ScoreMobile has been downloaded more 9 million times, the answer is getting clearer: it's helping theScore to open up markets far beyond television's reach, and Canada's borders. On top of that, it makes money.

TheScore has been Canada's underdog sports channel since the day it launched. Today, it runs third, behind TSN and Rogers Sportsnet, in terms of viewers and advertising revenue.

It is, however, profitable and scrappy. In a landscape dominated by lumbering TV giants, theScore has been especially aggressive about going multiplatform. At its annual general meeting, held in its TV studio, the two sportscasters chosen to host the event aren't even billed as TV personalities. Instead, the network proudly tags Tim Micallef and Sid Seixeiro as the hosts of Tim & Sid: Uncut - "one of the top sports podcasts in Canada."

Podcasts are hardly the stuff of gushing returns. Yet Score Media has adapted Tim & Sid: Uncut to all sorts of media. Video of their recording sessions airs on TV and is streamed via theScore's website. Meanwhile, audio is pushed out on Internet radio, beamed over Sirius satellite radio, and distributed on iTunes. Mr. Seixeiro can only describe his show to the assembled as "radio-slash-podcast-slash-whatever."

"We're hoping this success will bring us our own TV show," Mr. Micallef wryly adds.

The scale of the company's multimedia push has brought returns. A full 15 per cent of theScore's advertising revenue now comes from its Internet platforms. Within three to five years, the company expects its online and mobile advertising revenue to actually exceed its TV ad earnings.

Apps are a key part of this strategy. Having plunged into the market early, theScore boasts the number-one sports app for BlackBerry, and is a strong global player on the iPhone. Across all platforms, ScoreMobile is drawing 2 million unique visitors a month.

It's easy to imagine apps are just a bonus for loyal TV viewers, but theScore's numbers suggest otherwise: 60 per cent of their mobile traffic comes from outside Canada, where the network doesn't air.

It would be a startling turn for an old-media company, but this a network that started life as nothing but a blue screen with a sports ticker. The embryonic channel launched in 1994; John Levy hired young programmers to convert a handful of American data feeds into a digital TV signal, and dubbed the result Sportscope.

"We were an Internet company before the Internet really existed in the context of this kind of data," says Mr. Levy.

After the network got its license and relaunched as a sports-news channel in 1997, theScore charted a different course. Instead of relying on live sports coverage - licensing rules sharply limit the amount it can broadcast - theScore developed a format that leaned toward fan-centric conversation. Less endless tennis matches; more edgy commentary led by a cast of colourful characters. Ultimately, this kind of content proved well-suited for different platforms.

"What they realized was that their short form content, that was transferable onto their website, was a differentiator," says Scott Rattee, an equity analyst with Stonecap Securities, who covers the network.

As early as 2004, when blogging was still a relatively new concept, theScore set up a contest with Molson, in which a handful of writers from across the country blogged in support of their teams. (Co-branded contests are another theScore specialty.) For a year, the bloggers wrote voluminously, staged fights amongst themselves, and drummed up attention.

"Two of these guys are now writers on big-time blogs," says Jonathan Savage, theScore's VP of digital media. "I think they got a beer fridge for their year's effort, with their favourite team's logo on it."

Those early efforts developed into a full blog federation, launched in 2008, and a contingent of writers supplying written content for theScore.com, and bolstering its mobile offerings.

Being first to market in the mobile world has helped turn theScore into an sports-score player on the global stage. To shore up its development efforts, Score Media purchased a 20 per cent stake in NuLayer, the Toronto-based development company that developed ScoreMobile, run by two engineers in their mid-20s.

Mr. Levy likes to call theScore's mobile strategy a "Trojan horse": It opens up whole new markets to the company, by cheaply building brand awareness before the arrival of a flagship product.

What form might those products take? Starting TV stations in other markets probably isn't in the cards owing to regulatory constrains, says Mr. Levy, though he concedes it's an "interesting possibility." Nor will he rule out getting into sports betting in jurisdictions where it's legal.

Right now, he's more enthusiastic about yet another new platform: "widgetized" television like Google is promising with Google TV. Combining an app approach with video features, it could see theScore's programming to appear on television screens worldwide.

"You might be sitting in a living room in Amsterdam or in Italy or in India or China, and you'll see a little score logo on a screen, and lo and behold, our content appears."

It's a bold vision for an untried platform. But if Mr. Levy has proven one thing to date, it's that he knows what to do with a sports ticker.

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