ESPN Slam Dunks Its Public API

Sudden Death for the ESPN API

Earlier this month on its developer website, ESPN released a notice stating that it would stop issuing public keys for it's API and would also start the process of shutting down current users of its free content as a service offering. Stating what everyone already knew -- sports is a business like any other -- ESPN cited financial reasons for the shutdown. Based upon the content monetization business model, one can assume that the site traffic generated by the content syndication did not generate the return that ESPN was hoping for.

Dear ESPN API Developers,

Since the launch of the ESPN Developer Center in March 2012 the capabilities and direction of our API program have continued to evolve in order to serve sports fans in the best way possible.

As part of that evolution, we have made the difficult decision to discontinue our public APIs, which will enable us to better align engineering resources with the growing demand to develop core ESPN products on our API platform.

Effective today, we will no longer be issuing public API keys. Developers utilizing the ESPN API with a public API key may continue to do so until Monday, December 8, 2014, at which point the keys will no longer be active.

We want to thank all of you for supporting the ESPN API, and we hope you found value interacting with the service over the past two years.

While ESPN may have been thrown out in trying to stretch a single to a double, it's an overreach to say this is the beginning of the end for every public API. Even if it is the end, it surely isn't the beginning. Last year tons of API shakeups happened between Twitter, Apple, Facebook, Tumblr and LinkedIn and we can expect to see many more such shakeups to come.

Reading Between the Lines

While my sources at ESPN have not commented, one can reasonably infer that someone at ESPN took a look at the financials. Top line ad revenue generated by traffic from content syndicated by the pubic API wasn't enough to cover the costs of maintaining the gateway along with the public support channel and developer outreach programs.

Some questions do, however, remain: 

Was the cost of data defense taken into account? Once the wall went up around the content, you can assume that a few people in the crawling and scraping communities across the internet yelled “BOOYAH!” at the prospect of seeing their business development pipeline heat up. Rest assured, content that has an audience but not an API will sooner or later be scraped by someone trying to build a business off the stolen content.

ESPN is sure to remember that just like there's no crying in baseball, there's no crying in the content business. In responding to scrapers, there's two options and crying isn't one of them. Pay to protect your data (which has dubious efficacy at best) or open a governed API with methods to make money off the referred. 

Outside of the economics of data protection versus governed public access, where do public APIs still make sense? When audience traffic to the content in question is accretive (accretive traffic is net new traffic. Cannibalizing traffic has no effect on the net number of content views) and trackable, APIs and content syndication will have a strong platform to build upon, and as always, there are additional nuances to consider:

  • When syndication strengthens the brand identity via ubiquity -- Facebook commentary is Facebook content and everyone knows it. In 10 to 20 years it may be different, but as of now, Facebook is the social portal. If the proliferation of Facebook content across the internet landscape has had a negative effect on Facebook traffic, I would think we would know it by now. When people consuming and interacting with Facebook widgets on other sites, it doesn't siphon the audience away, it creates the network effect. In other words, Facebook’s syndication creates accretive traffic.
  • Content that is the ad -- When content itself is the ad, the syndication is inherently profitable because monetization is tied to the number of eyeballs viewing the content which are not necessarily limited to one particular web address.

Regardless of the economics of data protection versus governed public access, where do public APIs never make sense? The value of content syndication via API goes to zero when all of the following constraints are met:

  • You are not in the business of creating a movement via idea distribution -- If the viral spread of your content is not the business you are in, supporting a public API is more of an economic question than a mission question
  • The value of the content in question doesn’t expire -- A song’s value doesn’t expire the same way that a listing on eBay does (i.e., content that rapidly declines in value over time is more ripe for an API where content with a static or rising value over time has less incentive to freely distribute it).
  • You control the unarguable premium breadth and depth of content and the distribution channel with the largest audience share -- If you both own the majority of the quality content and the most prominent distribution channel for that content, the upside of a public API gets a little thin (i.e., If you have the most and the best content and similarly have control of the widest audience then the incentives to allow others to develop an independent audience has more downside than upside).

Is the data as a service product still in use as an internal enterprise product? One ray of hope in the otherwise disappointing season was the limitation of the shutdown to only encompass the public API. The private API which remains opaque to outsiders looks to be staying intact.

The Untouchable Asset

ESPN still has a robust enterprise API strategy, and uses the APIs as the foundation for their strategic digital partnerships. Easy extraprise interoperability via web standards are where the hard ROI numbers become unarguable. Service oriented architecture (SOA) has been the standard for developing enterprise platforms that are both scalable and nimble for quite some time now and it’s very unlikely that ESPN, or any other enterprise player, sold the move to an enterprise API based on the speculative ROI for a public API. Public APIs provide several linear and non-linear advantages in the content and feature syndication business, but these benefits are more like the extra points, and the benefits from a configurable and interoperable enterprise platform are the home run.

Title image by Aspen Photo /