Sports, social apps don't make for good teammates

Twitter may be the greatest thing to happen to sports since the invention of the box score. These days, I watch most of my sports from the comfort of the couch. It saves me a fortune in what I'd otherwise have to spend on tickets and watered-down stadium beer, but I will concede that it's a solitary experience—it's hard to feel part of a cheering crowd when you're in a room by yourself, no matter how good your HDTV setup is.

That's where Twitter comes in. When I'm tapped into the microblogging service, I can interact with fans enjoying the same game that I am. We can cheer the same plays, boo the same bad calls, and argue over whether or not that should have been a penalty. Last fall, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers squared off in what turned out to be a pretty good baseball game—an 11-inning thriller with reversals of fortune, late-game heroics, and, ultimately, a deciding home run. It was a terrific event to watch, made all the better by the fact that my Twitter timeline was full of people losing their minds.

It stands to reason, then, that if Twitter has been such a boon for tech-savvy sports fans, a social networking service solely dedicated to sports would be even better. Gone are those bothersome tweets about celebrity deaths, breaking news, and other matters of little consequence to the true sports fan—instead, such a service would offer posts about sports, sports, and more sports, with a few scores and stats thrown in.

You would think all that, at any rate—and you would be very, very wrong. I've tested more than a few mobile apps looking to create a sport-centric social network—some of which incorporate Twitter and Facebook, some of which plot out their own course—and I've yet to come across one that I don't abandon at the first opportunity.

Each of the apps I've put through their paces over the past few months has its own set of pros and cons. But I've noticed some common problems among these kinds of apps that relegate sports social networks to benchwarmer status—for me, at least.

Bantr would like all of my Facebook friends to know what matches I'm watching and who I'm rooting for.

Social Networking Clutter: A lot of the sports app I've taken a look at incorporate existing social networks. It makes sense in a way: Why should I have to come up with another username and password when I've already got a Facebook account? The trouble is, Facebook is not always discriminating with what it shares with your network of friends. For example, Bantr, a chat app aimed at footy fanatics, had me log in via Facebook; in exchange, my Facebook page now contains a record of all my Bantr activity including match check-ins and even which team I support. Some apps have become a little better about this practice. When I first tried out a chat app called PlayUp for a Macworld review last November, the app slapped a garish advertisement on my Facebook wall; when revisiting the app earlier this month, I noticed it now gives me the option to disable posts to my Facebook wall—a feature I'm sure my Facebook friends heartily welcome.

Indiscriminate wall posts aside, sports apps can get too tied into social networks in other ways. One of PlayUp's marquee features is that it gives you the ability to create private hangouts tied to live sporting events so that you and your friends can talk about the game. It's a solid enough idea, but the iOS app limits you to inviting Facebook friends to participate. If there's a way to invite others to join in your PlayUp chatroom, I couldn't find it. And that feels like an unnecessary restriction.

Last weekend’s Manchester City-QPR match was a big deal, but user interaction in apps like PlayUp paled in comparison to my Twitter stream.

Limited Participation: This past Sunday, Manchester City was playing Queens Park Rangers in a match that could have meant a championship for the former and relegation from England's Premiere League for the latter. It turned out to be a thoroughly entertaining game, one of those events that reminds you why you bother watching sports in the first place.

And on Bantr, only a handful of people were talking about it in the ManCity-QPR chatroom. Activity was slightly more brisk over on PlayUp, but only by a little bit. My Twitter stream, in contrast, was lighting up with people tweeting about ManCity's last-minute triumph.

It's a bit of a Catch-22, that's mostly beyond the control of these sports services: People aren't going to be inclined to join in sports chats if there's not a lot of participation, but there's not going to be a lot of participation if people aren't inclined to join. Still, if there's a big game on, I don't have to search too long and hard on Twitter for someone eager to sound off about it; that hasn't been my experience with the sports-centric social networking apps I've tried.

The Ties That Don't Necessarily Bind: There could be a perfectly simple explanation for why participation lags in some of these sports-themed social networks: People may not necessarily be that interested in the opinions and insights of fans they don't know personally. Just because I share a rooting interest in a sport or even a particular team doesn't mean I have much in common with my fellow fan. One of us might take a game very seriously; the other might view sports as a light-hearted diversion. One fan of a team might become a ranting prophet of doom at the first sign of a trouble in a game, while the other might remain cheerfully, almost annoying optimistic even in the face of a blow-out loss. Different people root for the same teams in different ways, and a lifetime of awkward interactions on the Internet has taught me that those styles aren't always compatible. Maybe I took my mother's "Don't Talk to Strangers" lectures a little too close to heart when I was a youngster, but when it comes to talking sports, I'd much rather do it around people I'm familiar with as opposed to a chatroom of (potentially hostile) unknowns.

SportCaster curates Twitter feeds for games, but its interface is a little cluttered.

One app, OneLouder's SportCaster, looks to get around this issue by dropping the chat aspect altogether and instead focusing on curating tweets. Tap on an individual game, and SportCaster will show you a stream of tweets from reporters, bloggers, and fans (or at least, it will show you tweets from fans who remember to use hashtags.) In an improvement over an earlier version of the app I had reviewed, SportCaster lets you add Twitter feeds of your choosing to its game pages. It's a welcome degree of customization, if a bit burried within the iOS app. But it seems like a lot of duplicative effort to go through, especially when I've already set up Twitter to follow reporters, bloggers, and fans whose insights I value.

Divided Focus: What I like about checking in with Twitter when I'm watching a sporting event is that I can quickly scan for the tweets I want to read, maybe post a witty bon mot of my own, and get back to the action on my TV screen. Because I'm using a Twitter client of my chosing—I prefer Twitter's in-house option, but I won't begrudge you the third-party app of your choice—I don't have to struggle with an unfamiliar interface. For all its curation mojo, SportCaster's interface is ghastly—it's hard to scroll through tweets at a glance and the screen is cramped with ads and tabs.

Chat-focused apps like PlayUp and Bantr fall short, too, because they expect me to divide my attention between a chatroom conversation and the game I actually want to be watching. Say what you will about the pros and cons of asynchronous conversation, but I can set aside that conversation when the action on the field picks up and resume it when there's a breaking point. I don't find I can do that with chatroom apps—at least not without taking myself out of the game. And that's the entire reason I'm watching, after all.

You predict the outcomes of plays with FanCake; the points you win for correct guesses can be redeemed for prizes.

At this point, one of the few offerings that seems to realize the need to strike a balance between the action on the field and the activity on your mobile device is FanCake. The promising premise behind this app is that you "check in" to watching sport events, a la GetGlue and its TV, movie, and music check-ins. As you watch games, FanCake asks you to predict what happens next—will the batter get a hit, ground hit, or strike out, for example. You earn points for correct guesses that you can redeem for apps, discounted merchandise, and gift cards.

Promising as the idea may be in theory, however, it falls flat in execution. You've got just a few seconds to make you prediction, and FanCake doesn't provide much in the way of context like the batter's name or his statistics. Some of the things FanCakes asks you to guess about are mind-numbingly uninteresting: If you thought the parade of free throws that punctuates every NBA game was an excerise in tedium, imagine being asked to guess which combination of free throws a player will make or miss. And FanCake doubles-down on distraction by slapping its outcome-guessing game on top of a chatroom and throwing out random badges for you to tap and earn more points. It's as if the app is designed to make you stop watching the sporting event you've tuned in to see.

Reasonable poeple can disagree, of course, even on a topic as super-charged as sports. I'm certain that for all my disdain for sport-centric social networking apps, you could find legions of users who swear that such apps have given them an added appreciation of sporting events. Me, I'll restrict my sporting event social activities to the occasional Twitter check. Twitter seems to understand that the game's the thing.

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