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120 Sports, Launching This Spring, Is a Digital Service Backed by Big-Time Sports, but Won't Have Live Games

Sort of like ESPN in the early days.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

What would you call a place where you can go to see sports highlights and scores, and see what people have to say about sports, all the time?

Depends on where you’re looking. On TV, there’s ESPN, of course. And on digital platforms — like your Web browser, your iPhone and your Xbox — there’s ESPN, again. As well as lots of competitors, from tiny blogs to new players with scale, like SB Nation and Bleacher Report.

And in a bit there will be another one, blessed by some of the sports leagues themselves: 120 Sports, scheduled to launch this year, is billing itself as a “multisport, league-built live stream video network.”

What that means in plain English: 120 Sports will be a free digital service that offers up 24/7 sports news and commentary, augmented with clips from pro baseball, pro basketball, pro hockey, Nascar and lots of college games. It’s a joint venture between two sports leagues — the NHL and Major League Baseball’s digital arm — along with Time Inc. and Silver Chalice, a digital sports production company.

The service will be “unauthenticated,” which is biz-dev speak for “you won’t need a pay TV subscription to see it,” like a lot of ESPN’s digital stuff. But even though the NHL and MLB are investors, 120 Sports won’t offer the most valuable programming sports leagues have, and have already sold to other people: Live games.

“That’s the mother’s milk of every league,” Bob Bowman said during a press conference this afternoon.*

So what will 120 Sports offer instead? Lots of other stuff, its backers promise. Remember that when ESPN itself launched, it didn’t have any real sports programming to speak of (Australian-rules football doesn’t count), so it created an empire based around sports scores and highlights. But also remember that when ESPN launched, there was no Internet and just a smattering of TV channels, so we’d pretty much watch anything.

Things are a whole lot more competitive now. Obviously. If you want me to click on your sports thingy, you have to first convince me not to click on the other sports thingies zooming through my Twitter feed. And then you have to get me to stick with you, instead of flitting off to Son Of Flappy Bird or watching old episodes of “Sports Night” (those are the “Sports Night” dudes up above, by the way.**)

The 120 Sports guys say they will be able to do this because they’re going to be digital-first and because they understand short attention spans (each new bit of content won’t go longer than 120 seconds, hence the name). But no way of judging that till it’s out.

At a minimum, the news is interesting because it represents the first digital investment Time Inc. has made in quite a long time. Time Warner’s publisher has spent the last few years in an M&A dead zone. So at the very least this deal, which Time Inc. will use to bolster the video it is already creating at its Sports Illustrated title, will give the company some digital talking points as it prepares to spin out from Time Warner this year.

* It’s worth noting that, last month, the NFL announced that it would be launching what sounds like its own version of the same concept — a digital service that features lots of content but not live games — this year.

** Remember “Sports Night”? It sort of holds up, but also not, even if you are a hard-core Sorkin person. Probably better watching YouTube highlights or whatever.

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