When the New York Giants and the New England Patriots face off in the Super Bowl this weekend, here’s a fun fact you can trot out to impress even the most die-hard football geeks: According to Dennis Lee, CEO of PlayUp USA, there are "a ton" of New England Patriots fans in India. You heard that right, India—a country better known for stirring the emotions of legions of cricket devotees—apparently has a contingent of people passionate for pigskin. And all it takes to talk smack with them, or equally dedicated family and friends during the big game, is an app.
As PlayUp’s burgeoning social network strives to building mobile communities around sports (it started in Australia in ’07 and launched in the U.S. last year), Lee’s expecting fans of every stripe all over the world to come together in the platform’s chat rooms to cheer (or jeer) for their favorite team during the Super Bowl.
Chat rooms? Aren’t those so last century? Not so, says Lee. "Fans share their comments at games, tailgate parties, watercoolers, and on sports talk radio. PlayUp makes it easier. Now they have the opportunity to tell the world [in an open chat] or select groups of friends [in a private forum] instantly and in the palm of their hand. No need to be alone on the couch anymore watching the game."
Though you can’t view any actual games directly from the app, PlayUp does offer real-time scoring and stats for every NFL, college football, NHL, NBA, MLB, and MLS game, as well as soccer, cricket, and Australian Rules Football around the globe. That amounts to about 20,000 live games per year.
That’s the appeal of PlayUp for both casual fans and dedicated followers, according to Lee. The play-by-play feed is coupled with an option to create private rooms to discuss the action with close friends or join public rooms to interact with fans from around the world, he says.
Scattered between Hong Kong, Canada, Switzerland, and San Francisco, Lee’s own family experienced this firsthand as the app became an indispensable tool for keeping up with each other around their shared passion for sports (Go Bruins!). "People want to talk about sports in context," he asserts. "It’s not like Facebook where you’ll be browsing someone’s photos or seeing who’s birthday it is instead of focusing on the game."
PlayUp’s proving there’s a growing need for that kind of no-frills talk in "virtual family room-style," even beyond sports supersites such as ESPN.com and hashtag conversations on Twitter. So far, the app’s "approaching seven figures in downloads" since its launch in October. Though PlayUp regularly has between 50-75 people participating in live open chats, Lee says the demand for its unmoderated private chats exceeds its public counterpart.
With $50 million from its latest round of funding, Lee says the company’s plan is to expand PlayUp’s app to include more new user-friendly features, including guest appearances by sports legends in certain chat rooms. Note to Super Bowl fans on PlayUp: Keep one eye focused on the public chat rooms that day for a "special surprise and reward for our loyal users." Lee says they’re planning to have a high-profile sports figure chatting with fans during the game.
Lee underscores the importance of building a community base where "everything we are doing is for the user." With broadcast television we had to invite friends to watch from our sofas or go to a bar in order to interact with like-minded fans, Lee contends. "With mobile we are now able to take sports passion and lifestyle and adjust it, making it less about the sport and more about the user."
But even a user-centric approach proves the future of televised sports isn’t just about fun and games, says PlayUp’s cofounder George Tomeski. "This app will not only change the way we consume and interact around live sports, but also create a new commercial model for sports," Tomeski says. "Sports-related SMS and MMS messaging already generates billions of real-time messages worth billions of dollars. New features will tap into that huge usage base to deliver major new revenue opportunities for everyone from players and clubs to bloggers and content providers."