Earlier this year, at SportsPro’s The Brand Conference, Team Sky commercial director Hugh Chambers urged rights holders and brands to look more carefully at the ways in which they were using social networks. He cautioned that huge numbers alone are not enough, that genuine engagement with fans is much more important and meaningful than casual sharing of content, and that knowing that audience was a crucial step in understanding how best to interact with them. “Own the data”, was his advice.
Also at TBC that day was George Ciz, vice president of marketing and business development at the ATP, who, by then, was clearly already well aware of the message from Chambers. At the time, the ATP, the global governing body for men's tennis, was preparing for the launch of its own bespoke social networking app, MyATP, which finally became available for iOS and Android platforms on Thursday 12th November, just in time for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London this week.
“One of the biggest opportunities with this is around data,” Ciz tells SportsPro a few weeks ahead of the app’s launch. “One of the problems with Facebook and Twitter is that you get very little actionable data back. [With MyATP] we can see who is using the app, where they are using it, how they are using it. Of course there is a responsibility with that to use the data in the best, most responsible way possible, but we can use that for cross-promotion and other developments.”
Superficially, the app resembles a specialised Twitter, but it will, according to Ciz, “provide fans with something that we don’t currently have, with a truly customised experience of the ATP World Tour where they can customise what they follow, who they follow, how they follow it.”
There are two news feeds, here known as ‘pulses’: each user’s tailored pulse, and the ATP’s own, which aggregates content from across the service. ‘Capsules’ function as something like a cross between Twitter’s hashtags and individual profiles, with the ‘Roger Federer’ capsule, for instance, being home to all of Federer’s own content but also any content tagged to him by the ATP or anyone else using the app.
Capsules are the lifeblood of the app, with anyone able to create their own space to share photos, videos and text. As well as each player and tournament having their own capsule, other early examples include ‘I was there’, for fans to share memories from ATP events past and present; ‘happening now,’ to keep up with the latest news; and the self-explanatory ‘trivia and stats’. In this much, the app is probably closer to the personal content-sharing ethos of Pinterest than traditional social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Away from the constant noise of those services, MyATP represents something of a quiet space, a place to be heard over the din.
“It’s a really interesting product in a number of ways,” says Ciz, “but if you ask me what the biggest, most exciting thing for me is, from the ATP perspective, it is that it changes the way we deal with social media in our sphere. At the moment all the players and tournaments are on social media and they have a pretty sizeable following. The ATP itself has about 4.5 million followers on social media. But when you start adding the players and tournaments, that gets you close to 80 million. Roger Federer has 14 million on Facebook, Rafa [Nadal] has 14.5 million, Novak [Djokovic] has six million. You add it all up you get to about 80 million.
“But the interesting part is that everybody is doing it on their own, meaning that players are doing their own stuff, tournaments are doing their own stuff, and what we are not doing is leveraging the content that we have. At the ATP we create a tremendous amount of content. We process through our digital channels about 23,000 photos every year, about 2,500 videos, and probably a similar amount of news stories that we publish. So that’s quite a chunk of content. But the problem is that the players and tournaments don’t necessarily use that or have access to that content on their channels, so they’re creating their own content.”
That mass of pre-existing content is important to the early stages of the app, providing the ATP with a stream of ready-made posts to keep the service running while other users – players and tournaments, but also the general public and tennis fans – get used to the system and the user base grows.
“The interesting part of this app is that it’s going to integrate with our content management system, so anything that’s tagged with Roger Federer will appear in the Roger Federer channel on the app, for instance,” says Ciz. “Roger then has the ability to come and talk about that stuff in the app, but also the ability to add his own content on top of that. So if you’re a fan of Roger, you have all the official stuff from the ATP and all the content from him and you can see who has posted it.
"If you ask me what the biggest, most exciting thing for me is, from the ATP perspective, it is that it changes the way we deal with social media."
"At the moment if you want to follow Roger, you have to go to Facebook, to our page, you have to look at Twitter and it’s not guaranteed that things will show in your feed, because one of the limitations of social media is the fact that even though Roger has 14 million fans, when he posts that doesn’t go to 14 million people. In here, if you follow a player, you get their content.”
One of the biggest challenges, Ciz admits, will be in getting the biggest players to commit to using the service on a regular basis. The top eight players in this year’s ATP World Tour rankings – Djokovic, Federer, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Nadal, Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer and Kei Nishikori – were present at the launch ahead of the World Tour Finals, but encouraging them to keep using it beyond their obligations will have a significant say in deciding whether or not the app is a success.
Importantly, MyATP allows for cross-platform sharing, so content posted to the service can also be shared to Twitter and Facebook from within the app, meaning users don’t have to either focus on a single platform or spend extra time to find the widest audience for their posts. That will go some way toward convincing players and tournaments to make this their primary online point of engagement with fans, but a further bonus is that while, as Ciz points out, “the only people who make revenue off these social networks are the social networks”, MyATP has several built-in revenue streams, and a revenue-sharing agreement with the major stakeholders.
“Roger and Rafa have a very big following on Facebook and Instagram but they don’t make any revenue from it,” says Ciz. “It’s a great engagement thing, a great tool to connect, but from a revenue perspective there’s nothing flowing back. So the advantage of this is that we have a revenue sharing platform with Vixlet. There are three sources of income. One is advertising, two is sponsorship and third is a transactional revenue.”
The last of these is the most interesting and the most unique. Players and tournaments have the ability to hide certain content behind a paywall, material they feel fans will be willing to pay a premium for. Whether this will be widely taken up, with social media users largely unused to having to pay for snippets of shared content, remains to be seen.
Another of the revenue-generating elements Ciz see as crucial to the app is the appeal it will have to sponsors.
“One of the things that will be really interesting is geo-targeting, so we can chose where people see certain content,” he says. “What this allows is that [Federer] for instance can be posting various things – training, match photos, him with his family – but some of them might be sponsorship posts. ‘Here’s my with my Mercedes-Benz’ for instance. But Roger only has a sponsorship with Mercedes in China. So he can target that market specifically.”
Similarly, with much more access to and control over the data, sponsors can tailor their posts not just by geographic location, but to a much more specific audience. “Sponsors will have the opportunity to activate their various sponsorships in completely unique ways, to create their own capsules,” says Ciz.
The connections between heavy metal and professional tennis have arguably, until now, been monopolised by the Ulrich family: Torben Ulrich, whose tennis career peaked with a doubles semi-final appearance at Wimbledon in 1959, is the father of Lars, long-standing drummer for metal pioneers Metallica. But MyATP also has a famous heavy metal relative – the app’s creators, LA-based tech start-up Vixlet, previously created a similar app for fans of Slipknot, the band best known for their extravagant stage outfits and performances. That app was a trial run for Vixlet’s work with the ATP and, previously to that, with Major League Baseball on the MLB Fans app, which takes the same format as MyATP.
“Vixlet has a very interesting approach toward social media,” explains Ciz. “They believe social media is about to change: rather than focusing on connecting people, they believe the future of social networks will focus on connecting people’s passions. So it’s going to be passion-based social networking rather than the current form that we see through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.
“Last year we announced them as a golden partner of the ATP World Tour as well as the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. I can’t tell you who, but they are in conversations with other rights holders to create similar products. And they have a lot of private money behind them. People are really believing in this product.”
With more, likeminded apps to come, Ciz believes there is a value in being one of the first to the market with this kind of specialised social app. “I think it’s really great for the ATP to be seen as a leader on technology,” he says, noting that latecomers might have a harder time convincing fans of more than one sport that they need yet another separate app to follow their passion.
“Ultimately, I think the benefits are there for every single stakeholder,” Ciz concludes. “Our chairman Chris Kermode always says that when we deliver something it has to hit all five stakeholders: the players, the tournaments, fans, media and sponsors. And this will provide a tremendous opportunity for everyone.”