Avid sports fans have all faced the same problem at some point: Your favorite team is playing but you're in a city where the game isn't on TV. You'd gladly pay to watch it online--but you simply don't have the option to do so.

It happened to Ali Tahmasbi, former director of product management at MySpace, back in 2014 while his hometown Los Angeles Kings were making a run for the Stanley Cup. He was in Southeast Asia, desperately trying to find ways to watch the game--credit card out, ready to buy a live stream if he could find one. No luck--the NHL was still nearly two years away from offering online streaming. The only option was an illegal, lagging, pop-up-ridden feed. He gave up and resorted to reading delayed updates on his phone.

"It was a really good proof point for me," he says, "of how difficult it can be to find and watch sports."

Then Tahmasbi met Adam Shaw, a former Fox and NFL Network exec. Shaw had been thinking about the same problem. Together, the two founded Sportle, a live-streaming platform that aims to collect all the live sports broadcasts available in your area and put them in one place. Tell the app your favorite teams and log in once with your cable credentials (if you're a subscriber), and it'll alert you when your team has a game available for viewing, then live stream it.

The L.A.-based company launched its web version in February, then an iPhone version in June. Within its first week in the app store, it landed in the top 20 free sports apps--higher than Fox Sports, NFL, and Yahoo! Sports.

The co-founders say their ultimate goal is to become "the Google of streaming sports." But to get there, Sportle has a huge task ahead of it: the startup wants to rewrite the rules of sports broadcasting.

The idea

The basic concept behind Sportle isn't exactly groundbreaking--one platform where fans can access streamed games online, much like the way you can log in to iTunes or Amazon and buy a TV show, a movie, or a song. It sounds simple enough, but the live aspect historically made sports streaming more difficult; it wasn't until about two years ago, when sports leagues started making more of a push toward streaming their games and a critical mass of smartphones shifted over to 3G networks, that the idea became a realistic possibility for mobile. Currently there are many mobile viewing options but they're fragmented: you have to use separate apps for games on ESPN, CBS, MLB.tv, and the NHL Network.

"Wearing my sports fan hat, it was clear to me something had to get better," Shaw says of the online sports viewing experience. "I watched music and TV shows make the transition to digital, and while it was rough at points, you eventually had a meaningful shift in how people were consuming media. That hadn't really happened with sports yet."

Soon after mutual friends introduced Shaw and Tahmasbi in 2014, they raised $1 million from friends, family and angel investors, made a handful of hires, and got to work.

The result is an app that puts all the live-streamed sporting events available in your area in one highly searchable place. A user types in the name of the team, and the appropriate stream pops up. Tell the app which games and events you're interested in, and you'll get a push notification before they begin.

Another handy feature: Fantastic Finishes, which alerts users when a close game is nearing its finish. No more "Did you see that?!?" texts that come through, quite uselessly, after a game has ended.

Those elements should be particularly useful during events like the Summer Olympics, which kick off August 5 and, much to the chagrin of bosses everywhere, will take place largely during U.S. business hours. NBC, which broadcasts the games, will have its own Olympics app through which fans will be able to view the events. "What we're hoping to do is be yet another resource for the fan," Tahmasbi says. If swimming or track and field competitions are what you want to see, you can plug that into Sportle and the app will make sure you don't miss a thing.

Big visions

As of now, Sportle is completely free. It's completely legal, too, since it's essentially acting as a web browser, showing viewers the original network's stream. Sportle doesn't host the stream, so that means the network gets to count the video streams as its own.

"It's not cutting into anyone's slice," Shaw says. "It's increasing the overall size of the pie."

The hope, for both the co-founders and Sportle's users, is that the app will make enough noise to eventually help rewrite the rules of sports broadcasting. As of now, Sportle hasn't yet solved fans' most basic desire--to be able to view any game on demand. The startup remains at the mercy of the various complicated regulations of each major sports league.

"Sports rights deals are very nuanced," Shaw says. "You have some rules that are fairly archaic but still survive today, and you have a lot of rules that are being updated."

The NHL and NBA recently adopted fairly progressive pay-per-game online models, which means purchased games can be streamed through Sportle. But baseball fans must purchase an MLB.tv package for the entire season, and the NFL streams only a select few games each week. Offerings from other leagues, like international soccer organizations, vary greatly. Meanwhile, all these games are subject to being blacked out locally, since local cable companies own the rights. So-called cord-cutting isn't yet an option for sports fans who live within the geographic market of the teams they root for.

The platform already shows games from more than 100 leagues in 25 different countries. On a recent May day, with NBA and NHL playoffs in full swing, Sportle saw 20,000 unique users come to its desktop site--not a huge number, but nothing to scoff at three months after launch. If those numbers continue to climb, it could be a proof of concept that helps sports leagues take notice--and gives Sportle some leverage to help it get the deals done. The company couldn't get into specifics, but says it already has some deals on the horizon.

The co-founders see a few lines of income down the road. Marketing is one: If a Major League Soccer has a big game up against the NFL's Sunday slate, for example, the league could pay Sportle to promote the game prominently on its home screen. Sportle could also use the data it collects about users' watching habits to lure third parties--a LeBron James fan could get a notice from a ticketing site when the Cavaliers are in town; alumni of a school that just won a championship might get an offer to buy apparel from the team store.

The startup, which currently has eight employees in L.A. and Madrid, will look to raise a $3 million funding round later this year to continue refining the product and attracting more users, both here and abroad. Last year, the company brought on Pedro Duarte, formerly the head of digital media with the soccer club Real Madrid, to help pursue international partnerships.

One thing the company has going for it? The co-founders want to solve this problem as much for themselves as for other viewers. "I try to watch as many sports as I can--sometimes on my computer, my TV, and my phone at the same time," Tahmasbi says.

Published on: Jul 28, 2016