27 December 2012
My most popular apps have been MLB Scoreboard (121,664 users) and NFL Scoreboard (61,994 users). In both cases, the apps scratched an itch, started small, and grew from there.
The birth of MLB Scoreboard
I started MLB Scoreboard because MLB At Bat for Android was awful two years ago.* I needed an app that would tell me the scores of baseball games, with as few clicks as possible, with as many games on the screen as possible, and without taking several extra seconds to load for no reason.
* Now, it's merely inadequate. Big step up?
So, MLB Scoreboard was very, very simple when it first started. At the beginning, it was just a scoreboard: one screen, which showed all the games for the day in the order they were played, with the linescore like you'd see at the stadium. There was also the ability to go forward and backward by a day at a time, to see the previous days' results or tomorrow's schedule. That was it.
The app grew slowly. It took weeks to get to 100 users, and I was really excited. I kept adding new features: your favorite team would always appear at the top of the screen; I showed the current outs and runners on base; I let you click into a game to view the play-by-play and the hitting/pitching boxscore; I added highlight videos for each game; soon, there was a widget that showed today's game for your favorite team, so you didn't even have to wait for the app to open to get the score.
By the middle of the summer in 2011, it had somehow shot past 1000 users. That was the number I'd barely dared to hope it'd get to. When people had asked when I was going to put ads in it, I'd been saying that I'd bother with that when it got to 1000; but by the time it happened, I was too concerned by the fact that MLB's license for their data says it's for non-commercial uses only. If I tried to make any money, it wouldn't be non-commercial any more. So I left the ads out.
And it kept getting more popular. Near playoff time, people seemed to discover it. By the end of October, 7000 people were using it multiple times per day. On the modern internet, where ten million is the new one million, a few thousand is nothing. But for me, it was exciting.
And so, with the baseball season winding down, it was time for football season to start. And it just so happens that the NFL's Android app is much, much worse than MLB's. Like, unforgiveably awful. I needed a better app to see the scores, if I was going to follow football.
The birth of NFL Scoreboard
NFL Scoreboard started the same way as MLB Scoreboard, and perhaps even more barebones: just a list of the games and their scores.
And it similarly grew slowly, but not quite as slowly. Maybe the kind-of-popularity of MLB Scoreboard helped? It quickly shot past a few hundred users. By the end of the (much shorter) season, it had 1000 users.
Despite being monumentally ugly, it had a few advantages over NFL's official app. The official app took 30 seconds to start, and after a couple of clicks you actually got to the scores, and you could see two games on a screen. My app started in under one second, and went straight to the list of scores, and you could see seven games on a screen.
A new baseball season
In March 2012, I was contacted by AT&T, who wanted to promote MLB Scoreboard as a featured part of their new Android app store. Since baseball season was about to start, they wanted an entire baseball section. So they had me fill out some informational forms about the app, with logos and a description, etc. Pretty much all the same stuff you'd get from the actual Google Play (nee Android Market). I knew it wasn't going to be a big deal, but I told people that I was letting myself become foolishly excited for all the downloads I was going to get from AT&T users.
I should have known it wouldn't go that way. AT&T, being AT&T, never got their act together with the store. There was no baseball section. There was a sports section, but MLB Scoreboard was never in it. The only apps in it were those ultra-lame cookie-cutter ringtone/wallpaper apps. And every image on their app store site was broken. It was almost as poorly executed as AT&T's actual phone service.
But the 2012 baseball season rolled on anyway, and even without AT&T's help, MLB Scoreboard had somehow gotten popular.
At the start of spring training, there were 14000 installs (5000 active users). The rate of installation increased throughout March, and at the start of the season there were 26000 installs (14000 active users). Throughout the entire month, I avidly checked my download stats every morning, shocked that another few hundred people had downloaded it the previous day.
Because there was suddenly so much interest, I felt I needed to improve the app. It was pretty ugly. So, I spent a few weeks rebuilding the entire UI, making it more modern and fitting better into the rest of Android (ie, ActionBar), and adding animations to make things look cooler and smoother. At first, people very vocally hated what I was doing, and I got a bunch of angry emails.
And then, on Opening Day, the actual baseball-loving public started caring about baseball. And I got 1000 downloads that day. And the next. And more the next. For the first couple of weeks in April, I was getting 3000-4000 downloads every day. It slowed back down in May, to the point where I was only getting about 400-500 per day* for the rest of the season.
* It's amazing how quickly I got used to that. A year earlier, I would have been amazing by having a total of 400 users.
The growth rate stopped at the end of the playoffs, once again, peaking around 120K (63K active). Turns out people don't really care about the score of today's baseball game when there are no games.
A new football season
Right before the start of the 2012 football season, I received an email from a shady Russian company, offering to buy NFL Scoreboard from me for $1000. It was ugly, and only had 1000 users. I briefly considered it, but decided I'd rather make the app better, than sell out for what is basically a pittance.
I modernized the app's interface, again with ActionBar. I added features, like full game stats, full play by play, and all the passing/rushing/receiving stats for the players. People seemed to love these new features. Every Sunday morning before the games, I got several thousand new downloads.
After week two, NFL Scoreboard had shot up to 60000 users, and my growth rate was increasing.
I was loving it.
First tangle with a legal department
On September 14, 2012, I received an email from Google. They informed me that NFL Scoreboard had been suspended, and removed from Google Play, for "alleged trademark infringement".
They informed me that repeated violations of this nature would result in my entire developer account being suspended; this made me immediately fearful about MLB Scoreboard. I did not want to lose my developer account. Especially since my experience with Google is that they don't communicate with you when you try to appeal these decisions; you're just screwed.
I contacted the NFL legal department. The email from Google had included a list of a few hundred other apps that had been caught for infringement; mine stood out like a sore thumb in that list, since every single other app that was caught was a lame, obviously infringing app called something like "New England Patriots Ringtone" or "Super Bowl Wallpaper" that had no features, and was probably just malware.
In my email to the NFL, I asked if there were any changes they'd like to see to the app in order to get it reinstated. I told them I was willing to work together to find common ground; I was willing to remove features, to include a banner ad advertising their official app, et cetera.
I pointed out that there was a small group of devoted users who loved the app, and that that implied there was room in the market for a lighter-weight option than the official NFL '12 app, and that was the role I was trying to fill.
The NFL never responded. They had gotten what they wanted -- NFL Scoreboard was dead.
It happens again
I should have known I was flying too close to the sun, when I saw that Google Play was running its algorithmic app-finding helper thing, with the line "Users who downloaded MLB At Bat also downloaded MLB Scoreboard!" MLB would have to notice that, right?
And a little bit after the end of the baseball season, I received an email from MLB.
Please read the attached letter from the legal department at MLB Advanced Media regarding your MLB Scoreboard mobile application.
We write with respect to your unauthorized commercial use of MLB Material in your MLB Scoreboard application available in the Google Play market
Unauthorized commercial use, did you say? I asked for an explanation, since I very explicitly had not attempted to gain any commercial benefit from this free app with no ads in it.
Even though the application is being offered for free and doesn’t contain advertisements, it’s still being made available in commerce, which in this case constitutes commercial use in violation of the copyright notice and license described in our letter. Since you do not have a license from MLBAM, you are not authorized to use our Materials in this way and we must again insist that you immediately remove this application from the Google Play Market, sign the letter in the spaces provided and return it to us
So, I wondered, just being in Google Play constitutes "in commerce"? I asked that.
Yes it does, as it would if the application were available in the iTunes App Store, the Windows Marketplace, or any other similar application distribution platform.
Since it was apparent that if any third party might potentially derive some indirect benefit from the existence of the app meant that the app was "commercial", I asked for an example of a non-commercial use. You know, since it didn't seem like there was much possibility of avoiding that.
If, moving forward, you have ideas for ways in which to use the Materials that you believe fall under the category of “individual, non-commercial, non-bulk use,” you can send them along to me and I will be able to confirm whether or not they do.
Seriously. That was MLB's response to "can you give me an example of a non-commercial use". I don't consider that an example.
In the end, MLB forced me to remove MLB Scoreboard from the market. By my own hand. I didn't want to press them too hard, because they could just go to Google alleging copyright infringement, and I didn't want that to happen. Frankly, I'm glad MLB dealt directly with me. It was just painful, that I was forced to murder my own app.
End of an era?
So, my two best and most popular apps have been killed.
Some people surely feel this is a good thing. Before they were removed, I was talking to someone from Google and when he heard what the apps were, he responded "so, they're just pure copyright infringement." Those poor little professional sports leagues need to be protected from thieving bullies like me, standing on their backs to hog all the money and glory for myself. Removing any and all competition from the market is how American capitalism is supposed to work, right?
Others have pointed out that their vociferousness doesn't really make any sense. There's no conceivable way in which someone would download my apps so they could stop being a fan of the MLB or the NFL. I'm providing free labor to multiple-billion-dollar organizations in service of furthering the fanaticism of the people whose fanaticism makes them all their money.*
* I wish I were slightly less of a baseball fan, or that I lived in the same market as my favorite baseball team. Then, I'd be more likely to cancel my MLB.tv package in response to MLB's hit job on me. It'd actually cost them money, for no benefit to them. But my money will continue to flow to them, because I lack the courage of my convictions. And I love baseball.
Over the past two years, I've received requests from hundreds of people -- friends and strangers alike -- to make a version of my Scoreboard apps for their favorite sports. NBA, NHL, soccer. That will not be happening now. The poor little sports leagues can keep all the control they so crave, and they can continue to utterly fail to serve their customers.
Unless one of the leagues comes to me and wants me to help them make an app that doesn't suck, and that people actually want, I'm done with sports apps.