Apple’s Sports App

Apple’s Sports App

This week Apple launched a new app entirely devoted to sport. Apple Sports is initially available in the US, Canada and UK, and has a relatively small list of features.

You basically pick which leagues you’re interested in, and which teams within those leagues you follow, and it’ll happily provide you with things like line-ups, live scores, real-time stats and bunch of other things that other sites already offer. Also, it has betting odds in there, which we’ll get back to.

The app as released is very much a version 1.0 app, with minimal functionality at launch. It was obviously pushed out the door just ahead of the new MLS season kicking off, a league that Apple is very much invested in, with subscription packages that include every fixture in a league that now has Lionel Messi as the face of it.

As is the way of these things, anything Apple does has the Apple soothsayers trying to understand what the long-term play is really about for this. I mean, it can’t just be about providing live sports scores can it? Even though this is exactly what Google very successfully offers on Android. Indeed, this is functionality that any site that takes sport seriously offers already including many publishers and companies like Amazon for their Alexa platform.

There’s a feeling that this must really be about Apple leaning into sports and wanting to have a bigger footprint there.

While I’m sure that’s the case, and that perhaps they’ll bag some kind of NBA package in the upcoming rights auction the NBA is carrying out, I’m not sure that’s truly the motivator. It might just be that Apple’s iOS platform was distinctly lacking when it came to a first-party sports offering.

There are plenty of third-party sites out there offering live sports updates through apps, widgets and notifications, but they tend to be monetised somehow. And Apple certainly isn’t beyond “Sherlocking” third-party apps – that is, spotting a useful bit of functionality that some third-party company has created, and building that functionality directly into the core of iOS, thus rendering the third-party company’s business redundant.

Observers are also fairly certain that this is about creating a better TV viewing experience. If Apple alerts you to your team about to begin a fixture, it can push you directly to the correct platform, perhaps via Apple TV. In a world where every iPhone-toting TV viewer watched most of their TV via Apple TV apps or boxes, I could believe this. But that’s just not the case whatever Apple might want it to be.

So while I’m sure Apple does want to lean a bit more into sports, and will almost certainly pick up a few more rights packages here and there, I’m not sure that they want to be, or even could be, some kind of sports hub. Aside from anything, their interest in sports to date has largely been US-only sports. Becoming a global player for sport is an expensive thing to do, and while Apple may have more money than Croesus, that doesn’t mean they’re going to buy up every country’s major sports’ rights.

Returning to the app itself, it really does leave an awful lot to be desired. While the app has most of the major (and many minor) US sports leagues built in from launch, it’s offering outside of football (soccer) globally, is basically non-existent.

Considering the UK market is one of the three launch markets, the fact that only the Premier League is in the app right now is a massive own goal. There is no WSL (indeed, no women’s sport outside of North America at all), no EFL (and therefore, no Wrexham for Hulu/Disney fans new to the sport), no Scottish football at all (Celtic and Rangers are massive, and you’ve just sidelined an entire country), no FA Cup, no national football and no UEFA Champions’ League (they launched the app on the day that Champions’ League fixtured were being played). There’s no cricket, no tennis and no F1. Basically there’s a lot missing.

I’d note that when Amazon first launched Alexa in the UK, its live sports data was also lacking, and in the intervening years they caught up.

The app is very very poor for a non-North American sports fan. And since Apple specifically launched the app in the UK, that’s bad.

But what really surprises me is the prominence given to betting. Go into any fixture and the first thing you’ll see is some live “Betting Odds” for that fixture. This isn’t clickable, so there’s no gambling partner completely in place right now, although they are suppled by Draft Kings. But this is on by default, and appears before any other information about the upcoming game.

Yes, you can turn off this feature in the Settings, if you’re the sort of person who dives into individual app settings in iOS in that way. (As a mostly-Android user, I find the way Apple places app settings in a centralised location rather than within the app itself, the least intuitive thing about iOS.)

But gambling and Apple just seems wrong.

Apple has always made a great deal of its responsibilities and how upstanding a company it is. It is very controlled about the kinds of things it allows in the App Store to the extent that some companies have had to pivot their businesses to ensure that they’re not booted out the store.

But it seems that in the US in particularly, the gambling floodgates are opening. Sports gambling and mobile gambling is now legal in an ever increasing number of US States, and there has been a flood of activity in the US as big gambling companies try to capture a slice of that market.

Sitting in a country where gambling was relaxed some years ago now, and we’ve already experienced the flood of gambling advertising, and are still coming to terms with the impact it has had on some in society, I would suggest that the US has yet to fully see the devastation that is likely to follow.

And yes, I know that ESPN recently did a deal with a gambling partner, but they have irritated activist shareholders to appease. Apple is sitting on more cash than it knows what to do with. Why get its hands dirty with gambling?

I really hope they’re not going to iterate this app into being a click away from placing a bet live via Apple Pay. But I don’t know.

Perhaps Apple thinks that consumers wouldn’t adopt a sports app that didn’t include live odds. Maybe. But as someone who doesn’t gamble beyond buying the odd Euromillions rollover ticket, I can’t say that live odds is something that I personally look for in a sports app.

But hey, leave those betting odds on by default for all those kids to see when they’re following their favourite teams in the app Apple!