I've noticed from looking at my site's stats that the majority of my readers are not from the US. In addition, I'm not really much of a sports fan. So why am I writing about a site's coverage of "American football"? Why is it important?
Simply this, sports have a huge fan base. In the US it's football, in Europe it's football too, although we call it soccer. In India cricket is a national obsession. I suspect that everywhere in the world sports is a very big deal and a very big business.
Here in the US the most popular sport by far on television is NFL (National Football League) professional football. The Nielsen ratings (the leading viewership metric in the US) of NFL games exceed those of even prime time shows. Two thirds of all Americans are said to watch the NFL at least occasionally each season. The TV networks pay approximately two billion dollars annually for the rights to broadcast these games, and of course the networks expect to recoup that investment and make a profit from advertising revenues.
That's why I think sports sites are important to the future of mobile browsing and mobile data. There are so many fans of sport and not all of them have the time to watch all of their favorite team's games. It's common to see families in the park with a portable radio tuned to the game. Shoppers at the mall crowd around the TV's in electronics shops to keep up with the game. I see a lot of my co-workers browsing sports sites at work - I even do it myself. If fans away from a TV or computer knew they could easily follow the game on their mobile phones I bet mobile web usage would jump.
ESPN is one of the four TV networks that share the rights to broadcast NFL games. Their web site lets fans follow, in real time, any one of the 14 NFL games typically played on Sunday or the single Monday night game. Their WAP site delivers almost all the same information. in a very effective and elegant way. BTW, I'm focusing on the ESPN's NFL coverage but ESPN's Web and WAP sites also cover all the major and many of the minor sports. There is live coverage of baseball and basketball but the NFL coverage is the most detailed.
When you visit the ESPN site, the first thing you see is a list of sports. After you choose NFL and then scores from the front page, you see a list of this weeks games with the scores. Scores of games that are finished are marked with an "F" and clicking on them will lead to a typical after game description of how the game unfolded. But selecting a game in progress brings up the screen show in the first image. Here on a single screen, you can see the score, how much time is left, the down, the position of the ball, which team has procession and the outcome of the last play. These are the essential elements that a football fan needs to follow the game. Note that below the critical time-sensitive information is a refresh link. The page doesn't refresh itself presumably out of consideration for those of us on metered data plans. Scrolling "below the fold" will reveal secondary information such as game statistics and links to the pre-game story and a page detailing the scoring plays of the current game (second image).
The ESPN NFL WAP site is certainly not flashy, no images, streaming video or audio. All of those would be nice and I'm sure we will see them when 3G is the norm. The cool thing about this site is it works right now on any WAP enabled phone. It comes in both WAP1 and WAP2 flavors and loads fast. I see sites like this one which are designed for usability with no learning curve and compatibility with all phones to be what will drive initial mass acceptance of mobile browsing. We need to get more users hooked on the mobile web, too many of the current sites are difficult to navigate, prone to throwing errors or require extra steps like signing up on the web, entering passwords or drilling down through endless screens and links to find the little bit of useful information. Badly designed sites make users question the utility of the mobile web. A few bad experiences - maybe only one - will discourage many forever from trying to use the web on their phones.