April 28, 2008

Social networking for sports sits on an open platform

Author: Tina Gasperson

Sportsvite.com, a kind of MySpace for ballers, exists because Steve Parker and a few friends wanted to find a better way to organize softball leagues and other casual sports teams in their New York neighborhoods. Parker, who lists badminton as a favorite sport on his Sportsvite.com profile, says he has always been an advocate of using open source, and thought it would be a great idea to build an Internet service that would make it easier for people to team up for amateur sports.

"We started batting around the idea back in early '05," Parker says. "But we had other full-time things going on, so didn't officially launch until the beginning of '06." Parker and his friends enjoyed the loose-knit network of leagues, but it was a "pain" to organize games. Their idea was to build a social network strictly for those who would rather play than watch sports. "We initially started out by putting out a very basic version of the site, focused on a couple of simple things. You could organize games with friends and put up a sports profile. As we introduced Sportsvite in beta we realized that the opportunity for an online community targeting recreational sports and amateur athletes was substantial." The original focus has expanded to include the social networking concept so popular in the current Web 2.0 iteration, Parker says. In 2008, Parker hopes to provide what he calls "context" around different sports interests by including event listings, instructional videos, articles, blogs, and nutrition and fitness tools.

Sportsvite has seen some financial return in the form of advertising revenue from sponsors including Powerade, Puma, Kellogg's, Coors, and Suzuki. A secondary form of income comes through management of sports league partner sites such as Denver Sports & Social.

Parker, a software developer with a background in open source, brought to the company a conviction that avoiding proprietary software was the only way to launch a Web 2.0 enterprise. "In every aspect of what we do, we use open source," Parker says. "One of the major reasons we use it is the belief in its stability and availability -- and of course, zero cost to get started." Sportsvite.com is built on LAMP, a combination of the Linux operating system, Apache Web server, a MySQL database, and the PHP programming language, and Java.

Parker says his friends, who became co-founders of Sportsvite.com with him, trusted his expertise. "They were cool with it. The conversation would come up from time to time earlier on, when they would be talking with someone else who would mention how .Net was pretty good. Then I would have to explain the pros and cons of why we were taking the approach we took, as opposed to using .Net, which straps you to Microsoft technology. They understood that and bought into the philosophy that there's a world of [open source] resources out there, and it's only going to grow and get bigger over time. We'll have more and more options available to us as we expand the site."

Parker and his team are so confident about the benefits of open source that they've even been explaining the concept to potential investors. "We explain the technology we're using, and how that affects our costs for building and maintaining the system. They were fine with it." So fine, in fact, that a few "angel investors" in the form of professional athletes have pitched in capital resources to support the beta phase of Sportsvite.com. "I think people are really understanding more and more over the past few years how open source is very stable and it's not just a bunch of free software."

Like many companies using open source technology, Sportsvite's IT infrastructure is self-supported. "You could pay for lots of stuff," Parker says. "Production support, higher-level versions of the product. We're not finding much need for that. The software is the thing, and the community is out there on the Web. I've found that we can stick with the stuff that remains free, which is the same underlying software [as in the commercial versions], and we're good to go. Maybe at some point we may want to ease into getting some kind of higher end support, but there just hasn't been a need yet."

If there's any challenge, it has been an embarrassment of riches and just too many choices -- "knowing how to navigate all of the possible offerings out there, and making sense of it and dealing with the community in an effective manner," Parker says. "There are so many competing frameworks. Sure, if you go with .Net, you don't have to think about it because you're going to use all of Microsoft's stack, but if you're going to choose each and every component, you don't want to make the wrong choices. You don't want to use an open source product that has a dying community."


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