That sounded familiar. Ever since digital technology gave everyone the ability to weigh in on matters that we all used to rely on the professional media to describe and explain—like a football game or a political debate—mainstream journalism has struggled to match the intimacy and direct appeal that citizen journalism, at its best, can deliver. The conventions of a professional newsroom just don’t allow it. So for Hernandez at least, the News’s real-time competition isn’t so much mainstream rivals like the Star-Telegram or ESPN Dallas, it’s Cobb, whose free Facebook updates allow a community of friends and neighbors to follow and discuss their beloved team as the game unfolds.
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.”
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