A startup in Los Angeles is inching closer to its goal of changing the way people watch sports.
Sportle, a company founded by former NFL Network and MySpace execs, wants to become the go-to place for sports streaming. On October 1, Sportle launches a video stream of all things related to the Italian soccer club AC Milan, one of the most popular teams in the world. The Sportle app will give viewers video of practices, player interviews, press conference, and behind-the-scenes sessions, none of which you can get on TV. The company says it's the first ever deal between a major sports team and a third party streaming service.
If you're not an AC Milan fan, this might not strike you as big news. But Sportle has a big vision of persuading major sports leagues and rights holders (i.e. cable companies) to hash out deals that would let viewers buy games on demand right within the app. The first part of the plan is making enough noise so that none of those entities can ignore Sportle.
Right now, the app houses other providers' streams of games, giving users one app where they can watch all the sports available to them, whether through cable subscriptions or online packages like MLB.tv.
Pedro Duarte, Sportle's head of international and a former exec with soccer club Real Madrid, used his connections within the European soccer world to get the partnership done--and says the company is close to finalizing similar deals. "We've been building a strong network base here," he says. "Our road map includes deals with the five most important soccer teams in Europe."
The content will be free--much of it would have already been accessible to users through Facebook Live, YouTube live, or Google Plus, but Sportle gives fans one place to watch all of it, and alerts them when something new is available. Games can only be viewed if the user subscribes to a separate online package through rights holder beIN Sports.
Being able to offer fans the option to buy a game on demand will take some time--sports leagues have complicated and often exclusive rights deals with cable companies that feature archaic rules, since they were largely written before live streaming became a popular option.
But the rules are changing--and if Sportle wants to be a part of those changes, deals like with AC Milan are a good start.
Adam Shaw, Sportle co-founder and former exec at Fox and NFL Network, says the startup has begun talks with teams in the four major U.S. sports to develop partnerships similar to the AC Milan one. "We'd like to work out deals with some forward-thinking teams," Shaw says. "It could be a good chance for them to spread their popularity, especially with Millennials and young people who might not have allegiances to certain teams yet."
Indeed, the practice of cord-cutting--growing in popularity among Millennials--is not an option for many sports fans since a large percentage of games are only available on TV. Should, say, the Colorado Rockies agree with a third party to have games and behind-the-scenes content streamed, the team could gain more popularity among young fans, much like the Atlanta Braves did when they cut a deal to have their games broadcast nationally by TBS in the 1970s.
Currently, Sportle is still pre-revenue. Shaw says the company is focusing on growing a larger audience and proving itself to sports teams and leagues as a reliable traffic driver before exploring potential sources of cash flow. The company, co-founded by Shaw and Ali Tahmasbi, raised a $1 million seed round from friends, family, and angel investors in 2014 and is in the middle of closing a Series A round. (The founders couldn't comment on the size of the round, but in July they told Inc. they were looking to raise $3 million.) Down the line, potential revenue opportunities could include advertising, partnerships with teams' merchandise shops or with cable providers.
Before that happens, though, Sportle will have to keep growing--perhaps by providing what cable companies cannot.
"In the sports industry, there's an energetic focus on trying to take advantage of all the things digital can provide," Shaw says. "This is an ecosystem that can support a lot more viewers."