Commentary

Geolocation, geolocation, geolocation

Updated: May 28, 2010, 10:49 AM ET
By Ryan Corazza | Special to ESPN.com

Big Brother is no longer watching us.

[+] EnlargeEllis Park Stadium
David Rogers/Getty ImagesWhether it's Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg or your local arena, sports fans can share their experiences via geolocation applications.

We're telling him where we are.

It's called geolocation, and its utility is just starting to bear fruit in the sports landscape.

So what is it?

Well, geolocation is the identification of where you're currently located on the globe via the Web and a user's IP address or the GPS on your mobile device.

On March 9, Twitter integrated it into its main site. If a user elects to "turn location on," followers will see where he is tweeting from in addition to what he is tweeting about.

There was a report in The New York Times that same day that Facebook would be announcing the launch of location sharing for users at F8, the company's yearly developer conference, but such an announcement didn't come at the event back in April.

But beyond Twitter and Facebook, two specific geolocation companies are making the most noise on the Web right now: Foursquare and Gowalla.

These platforms are relatively new: Foursquare launched in March 2009 and was reported to have nearly 1 million users last month. Gowalla launched in 2007 but has been gaining steam of late. The company secured $8.4 million in venture capital funding in December 2009.

Foursquare allows users to "check in" at locations such as bars, restaurants and stores, and users can earn badges and become the mayor of a location if they check in there the most. Gowalla offers similar functionality but ups the ante by offering virtual items at some check-in spots. The thought is that these virtual items will in time be able to be traded in for real-world goods.

And now, Major League Baseball is the first major sports league that is jumping on the geolocator trend.

According to Business Insider, last week at Silicon Alley Insider's Startup 2010 conference, Major League Baseball Advanced Media CEO Bob Bowman announced an upgrade to the popular At Bat 2010 app -- one that allows mobile users to track games live via audio and video, among other bells and whistles.

Functionality called "At the Ballpark" will be added and will utilize geolocation. Fans will be able to check in at ballparks to possibly receive access to exclusive content such as a replay of a "bang-bang play at second base," Bowman said at the conference. The app also will allow a user to communicate with other fans in the stadium, adding a social-networking component.

When reached via phone, MLBAM was mum on more details beyond what Bowman said at the conference. But more information is likely to come in about a month, as it aims to launch the app upgrade by the All-Star break, the weekend of July 13, according to Business Insider.

So what sort of utility and incentive is there with geolocation? Is this just another too-much-information Web platform, or is there value on both sides of the table -- from league or team to fan?

Well, here are some hypotheticals on how MLB could use geolocation:

• If a user is checked in at a ballpark, the app could offer an incentive at the gift shop -- say, 10 percent off all hats during the sixth inning.

• It could offer food discounts during the game.

• Situational stats could be provided to users on their mobile devices depending on what's happening on the field in real time, exclusive only to those who've checked in.

Teams and the league make out nicely if fans are pumping more money into the park that they might not have otherwise. Fans believe they make out nice because they get discounts and deals as well as exclusive content they'd be unable to access without checking in.

"These platforms are superyoung; they haven't reached the critical mass of Twitter or Facebook," said AJ Vaynerchuk, co-founder of VaynerMedia, a brand-consulting company that works with the New York Jets and New Jersey Nets, among other sports properties. "There's a limited amount of users that are using these applications. But if teams and leagues can utilize them or build their own and create enough incentive, there's a ton of opportunity in the sports space for this."

Vaynerchuk said some other examples of how geolocation could be used in the sports world range from teams partnering with sports bars to offer tickets or discounts once a user checks in at an affiliated bar; teams offering fans tailgating on game day the opportunity for seat upgrades or the chance to be in a halftime contest; or the aforementioned discounts and deals on memorabilia and concessions.

In April, VaynerMedia did a test-case campaign with the Nets and Gowalla, distributing 250 pairs of tickets as virtual items in locations such as sports bars, outdoor parks and gyms for an April 12 game against the Charlotte Bobcats. Users who discovered the virtual tickets were able to redeem them for real tickets at the Nets' box office.

Once inside and checked in, fans were entered for a chance to win a Nets jersey and received free T-shirts and stickers.

Last week, ESPN announced it would be getting in the geolocation-phone-application game with ESPN Passport, in which users can check into games, write about their experience, post pictures and share their game-day scrapbook with friends on Facebook and other social-media platforms.

The check-ins with GPS location verification, comments and pictures will be aggregated to ESPN.com, where a Web version of Passport has been live for about two years, and can be used to create a story from the fan's perspective. The ESPN Passport app is free to download and scheduled to launch in time for the World Cup in June.

I think geo is the next big thing," Vaynerchuk said. "We just need to give geolocation platforms another year or two before they really start hitting the mainstream."

And that's really the rub here: Because geolocation is still in its infancy, leagues and teams won't make a big commitment to it overnight. But the seeds are starting to be planted, and they'll only continue to grow.

Ryan Corazza is a freelance writer and Web designer based in Chicago.

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