120 Sports Aims at Changing Landscape for Digital Content Consumers and Producers
Wednesday marked the public launch of 120 Sports, the new digital sports content platform developed by Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), Time Inc., and Silver Chalice.
Available today on iOS devices as a free, non-authenticated app, 120 Sports is being pitched as the first 24-hour sports network for the digital fan and it promises to change the way sports content is not only consumed by the user but the way digital sports content is produced by developers for the second-screen.
“It’s digital first,” says Bob Bowman, President and CEO of MLB Advanced Media, whose technological team built the interface and workflow. “We built from the mobile phone to the tablet to the laptop to the desktop. This is not something that we built for the TV screen. We built it for mobile first, on that device that everybody carries 24 hours a day and everyone looks at hundreds of times a day.”
120 Sports features on-demand highlights and conversations, as well as live original programming from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily, that instantly becomes on-demand content in approximately two minutes – or 120 seconds – long pieces.
The company is a start-up in a sense but it has the equity backing of Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and Silver Chalice’s Campus Insiders and the technological might of industry juggernaut MLBAM. Video rights deals have also been struck with the NBA, NASCAR, and the PGA Tour making highlights and video content instantly available from those partners.
“120 Sports, we believe, is a television-quality sports network that was created for digital audiences,” says Jason Coyle, President of 120 Sports, who is also the co-founder and vice chairman of Silver Chalice. “[It’s] news, highlights, live look-ins, analysis, conversation, moving at the speed of Twitter.”
Changing Viewing Habits
The user interface has a smooth tiled feature that spotlights both live and on-demand content. While watching a live or on-demand segment, the screen also displays various “data tiles” varying from popular tweets, to stats, to related links, and much more.
The design team feels this is a seamless integration of what a viewer would expect from both a primary screen and a second screen.
“When you think about television, a lot of what you get is based upon process of creation,” says Joe Inzerillo, MLBAM’s Chief Technology Officer. “That’s great for leaning back and absorbing the sports content that has a certain formula to it but when we start to think about digital first, digital is not just the video component of it. While it’s a very big part of it, [digital] is also data-driven.”
To weave in this data, the challenge for MLBAM is essentially fuse a first and second screen experience together so that all of the data is integrated and coordinated with the corresponding video segment.
“We think the expectation of the next generation sports fan is that that data is a part of that narrative and the storytelling,” says Inzerillo. “In order to do that, we really needed to deconstruct the production process to make them both parallel and equal.”
But where is exactly the line between “giving fans what they want” while also “changing viewers’ habits?”
“That’s one of the reasons that the data-driven piece is so important,” says Inzerillo. “Originally we said ‘we’re not having any shows’ but than quickly you realize ‘alright, well we’ll probably have some shows.’ So you come back to reality a little bit and it does have that linear sort of presentation to it. So it was really important that what we did with the user interface was design enough flexibility so that the user can just experience what they want to experience. They don’t have to go down this one particular path that we decide. People don’t do that. People follow things and look for what’s important to them.”
Changing Production Workflows
120 Sports is supported by a robust staff of over 130, with approximately 100 working at any given time when the app is live.
While traditional roles such as camera operators, directors, technical directors, and graphics operators exist, there are select teams that focus on more untraditional live roles. Up to a dozen staffers will be working on the asset management side of things alone, tagging on-demand clips and turning over live segments as instant VOD content on the app’s timeline. Around seven or eight staffers will be working in the “Social Room” monitoring trending topics that will impact the app’s future segments throughout the night. Another team is pre-producing content that will be included on the segment’s various data cards. There are game screeners who are searching for outstanding plays and highlights that are worthy of discussing and showing on the set.
120 has the option through a few of its league partners to offer live look-ins, though Coyle admits it’ll probably take something historic for them to make that move.
“The in-game highlight is the far better tool for us [than the live look-in],” says Coyle If you are trying to hit a 120-second window, you don’t have any control on a live look-in.”
A New Take on Content Management
With so many content partners and such a unique content distribution workflow, MLBAM had to build a revolutionary new content management system (CMS) to service 120 Sports.
The system is connected to all league/content partners and runs off of two MLBAM data centers in NYC and Omaha, NE. The CMS was built from scratch by Inzerillo and his team and was designed with the primary function to federate video and data content.
“Even though we have CMSs that we’ve built, we started from scratch to build something truly unique,” says Inzerillo. “Some other features, such as transcode, we have lifted from other systems that we already have but the core gathering and show flow app is new. This is the first time, to our knowledge, that anyone has ever built something like this.”
MLBAM in New York and the production team in Chicago have been working with the CMS in beta for a few months and ironing out the details. Inzerillo says there has been a heathly back and forth been the system’s developers (MLBAM) and its users (120 Sports’ production team) in making it all work practically.
“Sometimes when you’re trying to go so innovative there are things you realize are a bad idea, and we could change that,” says Inzerillo. “That’s one of the reasons why it was so important that we own the software ourselves. We didn’t have to go to vendor to ask to make changes. Something like this really couldn’t be built out of conventional blocks. If we did that, we probably would have ended up with something that looked a whole lot like television.”