A few weeks later, at Southlake Carroll High, another perennial North Texas powerhouse, I met Carroll fan Phil Barber at the gate and he whisked me to the top row of sold-out Dragon Stadium. Barber, seventy-seven, is one of eight members of the Dragon Council, a volunteer group separate from the booster club. Barber has missed only one Carroll game since 1978, and he has no need for technology to enhance his in-game experience: “I don’t even have a computer, thank you very much,” he told me. But Barber introduced me to a fellow council member, Eddie Robertson, who said he’d been using a new, free iPhone app called Friday Night Rivals to keep up with live scores.
Friday Night Rivals is the brainchild of a pair of suburban Dallas software developers, a nights-and-weekends side project that debuted on iTunes in August just before the News’s app. It’s a simple program powered by user-generated score updates from more than four hundred games across Texas each weekend. Scores are verified by other users. Jason Pace, one of the developers, said users downloaded the app to more than 22,000 devices through mid-December. Since the duo’s labor was free, startup costs amounted to only about $700, which they’ve already recouped through national ads and a 99-cent, push-notification upgrade. “The free model works for us,” Pace said.
Rivals isn’t nearly as detailed or content-rich as the News’s app, which includes stories, stats, and photos in addition to real-time scores. But with fan forums and the option to follow favorite teams, Rivals is more social—not unlike Cobb’s Facebook posts—and customizable. It’s a serious competitor for mobile fans’ attention. “Newspapers are cutting back and charging for content,” Pace said. “It definitely leaves a space open for people like us.” Throughout the season, downloads of the free FNR app easily outpaced the $1.99 News app, which had yet to crack five-thousand downloads a week before the state football finals.
Still, News managers said they were happy with early results from their real-time scoring initiative, which extends well beyond the mobile app. Play-by-play coverage of some fifty games a week helped drive a 40-percent jump in daily unique visitors to the paper’s SportsDayHS website on Friday nights in September, October, and November. “We weren’t sure if it was going to work,” said Rich Alfano, a general manager who oversees SportsDayHS’s business and news operations. “We were afraid we were going to be sitting there on Friday night and half the games weren’t going to be transmitted properly, the freelancers weren’t going to be able to upload the data quickly enough.”
Alfano said the real-time project also bolsters the News in its tug-of-war with ESPN Dallas, which has hired away several of the paper’s columnists and reporters. “They can match us on Cowboys and other big sports because they could steal away our guys—they’ve got to cover NFL football, right?” he said. “But high school, that’s a little bit more unique. That’s very local. That’s kind of our core competency, covering local sports.”
Serve the Passionate Vertical
In October, when I caught back up with Ross Roblin, the Cedar Hill fan I met in August who had avoided the News’s high school coverage since the paper started charging for web content, he was using the News’s app at home to get around the pay wall. The app, in addition to real-time scoring, gives users access to prep coverage and weekly rankings otherwise available only to subscribers. So by paying the one-time $1.99 fee, Roblin got the targeted coverage he wants without having to shell out $16 a month. “It’s a good way of getting some of that unlocked for me,” Roblin said.
Roblin’s experience—a practical, bottom-line appeal—differs from the more social, friends-and-neighbors experience that Raquel Hernandez sought on Facebook. Ideally, a news outlet looking to tap a niche market would build an app that would capture both, because Roblin and Hernandez are members of the same “passionate vertical,” a phrase Alfano uses to refer to niche markets with highly motivated followings. In 2010, for instance, visitors to SportsDayHS clicked on an average of fourteen pages per month, nearly twice the number of pages clicked on by the typical visitor to the paper’s regular online sports section.
Sure, the Texas high school football fan is a unique animal, but it’s hardly the only passionate vertical with enough mass and devotion to attract advertisers. The Charlotte Observer covers NASCAR with a separately branded, mobile-friendly portal called ThatsRacin.com. The Las Vegas Sun attracts serious web traffic with aggressive multiplatform coverage of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which Sun editor Rob Curley unapologetically calls “Las Vegas’ major-league sports franchise.” And that’s just in the sports world.