Monday, August 18, 2008 Does David Katz Have The Next Big Thing Or The Next Quokka?

Last week, I talked about Jeff Ma's Citizen Sports -- they are taking fan-engagement activities (like fantasy sports) where the fans are already, specifically Facebook.

David Katz, formerly the head of Yahoo Sports and once a heavy hitter in the online sports world, is going entirely the opposite direction with, profiled in today's NY Times.

The premise is that fans will join a new social network (or should I say yet another social network) -- one entirely geared toward sports fans (or should I say yet another one entirely geared toward sports fans).

Katz's site will have personalized news feeds (commodity), community-building features (cliche) and a twist on fantasy sports where friends challenge friends in weird bets (hmm).

That last one is intriguing, but it begs the question, as does the rest of the business plan: In an era where "open" is the key to basically everything, why would you launch a closed system?

Social networks live and die on what business types call "network effects" -- the more people who use, the more valuable a product becomes (think of the telephone or IM).

Katz starts out behind in the game simply by insisting that is its own closed community (in-bound personalized newsfeeds of your favorite teams don't count -- and are entirely commoditized, anyway).

Unless tons of fans sign on to the system and make it as robust as Facebook, why wouldn't you simply expand your Facebook experience to incorporate your sports needs?

(Or, frankly, why wouldn't you continue to service your sports needs as you have for a decade online? As one analyst quoted points out: Fans haven't really expressed a lot of dissatisfaction with online sports.)

Adoption -- at scale -- is going to be a challenge. There wasn't any indication in the piece of how Katz plans to migrate massive numbers of fans to his platform. Is he planning to get fans already comfortable with social networks (like on Facebook) to pick up another one or spend less time at their existing ones for his? Is he planning to get fans who aren't into social networks to dip their toe in through something as familiar as sports?

It's unclear, although Katz insists the product is cool enough that it alone will win fans over -- comparing it to the DVR is setting a high bar.

I haven't spent a ton of time on the site itself, but my first interaction doesn't look promising. A pop-up asks me what team I love (that's fine). Then it asks me what team I hate -- stop right there. I have been analyzing the "rivalry" strategy arguably longer than anyone else in online sports media -- at least since 1995. And here's the thing: It doesn't work. I digress...

The main page is hubbed by the FanFeed, which has a "TM" so presumably they think it's their killer app. I guess it's like your Facebook NewsFeed, but again, the perils of the closed system: Unless ALL of your friends are on SFL, aren't you better off getting your friends' sports takes on your existing Facebook page? Or on a special sports-only app from Facebook?

There is eye candy called FanFinder which uses a graphic interface to show you where fans are watching the game; again, will this be an open and useful utility that shows me all sports bars in my area dedicated to my team? Or will it be predicated on existing SFL members telling me where they are watching the game? (Less useful.)

The third signature product is "BuxBets," fake prop bets proposed by fellow SFL members that you can take, with winning bets earning you, um "Bux" that you can redeem for I-have-no-idea.

One big positive: Katz has convinced Samsung to sign on as an initial sponsor. It actually adds to the site's credibility that it already has sponsor money coming in.

Katz earned the splash of a feature in the New York Times Monday Business section (if bracketed by skeptical quotes procured by NYT sports-media columnist Richard Sandomir, who usually swims in the safer waters of old-media coverage).

The question is whether the site fits in today's sports-consumption world. Fan engagement might be the right concept (if flooded with newly funded competitors and powerfully backed installed powers right now), but it begs the tritest of all analyses as to its potential: If he built it, they won't come.

(Here is a challenge to SFL: Put a running total of your signed-up members on the front page of the site, updated daily or hourly. Again: Nothing will get fans to sign up for this like seeing other fans signed up for this. The kill-or-be-killed question is: How do you get that first surge to sign up? I'm waiting on the marketing plan beyond "Land placement in the Times and")

-- D.S.

UPDATE: Erick Schonfeld of TechCrunch (far more widely read and influential than this little old blog, certainly in the tech space) beat me to the punch and weighs in with his mixed endorsement, but -- like me -- he hedges on the site's apparent lack of openness. Schonfeld likens it to NetVibes for sports, but NetVibes is affinity-agnostic; it is a platform for anyone. SFL is only for sports fans; I think the comparison highlights SFL's short-comings even more.

1 comment:

rockmile8 said...

Off topic, but anyone watching USA Basketball has got to love this...Lebron's gold medal dance