When the World Cup kicks off in South Africa next week, sports fans will be united in their passion for the beautiful game. There's just one problem for the media companies that serve those fans: The world doesn't agree on what the sport is called.
For those outside North America (and purists within), it's football, period. But when Score Media Inc. set out a few months ago to create a mobile phone application for footy fans everywhere, it faced a marketing conundrum. A "soccer" app would leave the rest of the world confused; a "football" app would have Canadians and Americans thinking touchdowns and tackles.
"It's incredibly difficult for North American media companies to break into Europe for that very reason," said Dale Fallon, the director of Score Media's mobile division. But that is nevertheless the goal of the small Toronto-based company, which owns specialty TV network The Score. Its vehicle for a European landing is called ScoreMobile FC, which is to be released for iPhone and BlackBerry by the end of this week.
The company achieved unusual international success with its first application, ScoreMobile, which is the most popular app in the sports and recreation category for the BlackBerry - more popular even than the apps created by Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports and Major League Baseball.
Among Canadian iPhone users, it's the No. 5 free sports app, according to stats from iTunes; the most popular is TSN's. (TSN is owned by CTVglobemedia Inc., which also owns The Globe and Mail.)
Almost two-thirds of ScoreMobile's total downloads come from the U.S. But the application has not brought in as many users from Europe. Score executives judged that the World Cup would be the perfect time to try to change that. While it is far too early to know whether it will pay off for Score Media, the move illustrates the way in which some media outlets are turning to mobile viewers in a search new revenues and growth as the traditional television audience fragments.
The FC app will be translated into French, Spanish and German by this fall; other languages, including Portuguese, will follow. The financial motivation is there: The Score only has so much airtime to sell TV advertising. Mobile platforms can court more digital ad sales, and can use "geo-fencing" target ads according to users' locations.
In 2009, just under 10 per cent of Score Media's $24-million in advertising revenue came from digital sales, including the small banners stamped at the top of the phone screen in its apps. The company's goal is to grow its mobile revenues.
The popularity of ScoreMobile builds on the TV channel's roots. When it launched in 1997, before there were anchors and highlights, it was essentially a sports ticker with scores and game information for die-hard fans. The app satisfies the same need for instant information, with scores and stats for baseball, soccer, football, hockey, basketball, golf, and car racing.
But both the TV channel and the mobile app differentiate themselves from other sports media brands through their approach to another side of the athletic world: gambling.
"We have been more forthright [than other sports channels]about the fact that people wager on games, whether it's you and me betting privately, or whether it's a provincially-funded sports lottery, or whether it's offshore or whatever," said Score Media chairman and chief executive officer John Levy. The app includes not only scores but also betting odds and information about athlete injuries.
"We do it very carefully because we don't want to go offside, and everything we do is entirely legal," said Mr. Levy.
The perk of expanding into international markets, Mr. Levy said, is that many of them are not as legally restrictive. Once ScoreMobile FC builds an international presence, he said, Score Media could be exploring a move into the highly lucrative betting business itself.
"By us now being in those markets, we'll be able to deal with it in a more direct fashion," he said. "…Who knows what that might lead to down the road. If we have the best vehicle to promote it, and to advertise it, then we should seriously look at stuff like that."
Further apps that target an individual sport are on the way. Score Media is drawing up plans for one that caters to cricket fans in India. The original ScoreMobile app had 1.5 million downloads in its first three months and now, one year after its launch, it has been downloaded 3.5 million times. Score Media has a partnership with CBC to broadcast World Cup highlights and beyond the tournament, will include 30 leagues in its FC app. The international reach of The Beautiful Game gives the company a shot at building out its mobile strategy even further.
"In two to five years from now, we fully expect to be generating more revenue from our non-TV platforms than from our TV platform, and at much higher multiples," Mr. Levy said. "We're looking to be recognized as a sports media company with a global reach."