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Catching Classic Sports Moments as They're Happening

A startup quantifies what makes games exciting—and alerts you to go watch them.

Soon, millions of people will sit down to watch the Green Bay Packers face off against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. But high as the stakes may be, it doesn’t guarantee that it will be the most exciting game of the season. A startup called RUWT?! (short for Are You Watching This?!) offers a service that’s meant to help fans find the most exciting games all season long, for sports including football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer.

Unmissable: RUWT?! shows users a selection of sporting events judged to be exciting.

One night in the fall of 2000, Mark Phillip, a Brooklyn native who founded RUWT?!, was watching the New York Jets play the Miami Dolphins. In the third quarter, around the time the Dolphins took a 30-7 lead, Phillip, dejected, fell asleep. When he woke up in the morning, however, he found out that “not only did the Jets come back, but it turned out to be one of the biggest comebacks in the history of Monday Night Football.” In fact, the game has become known as “The Monday Night Miracle.” Phillip says, “I’ve always regretted missing it.”

This eventually inspired Phillip to build RUWT?! in 2006. He hoped to provide a service that would keep fans clued in to the biggest moments in sports. The software combines and processes information from two main feeds in order to predict when a game is worth watching and alert fans with information about how to catch the moment.

First, RUWT?! pulls in data about what’s on TV across the United States. The service never recommends games you can’t watch in your area—when you sign up, you tell it your location and TV provider—and it includes information about what channel the game is on.

Then, RUWT?! processes a feed of sports information that includes everything from scores to schedule changes to injuries. The service has rated more than 120,000 games to date, and it learns from previous ratings to inform its new ones. It considers factors such as the rivalry between the teams playing, the score, the time left in the game, the opinions of the site’s users, and other signs of Internet buzz.

It personalizes its recommendations based on a user’s preferred sports and teams. People can also set thresholds for when they’ll receive alerts—for example, they can tell RUWT?! to alert them only for games rated “Epic.”

“It’s been an interesting experience to try to quantify with math this thing that’s so passionate for me,” says Phillip, who majored in computer science at MIT.

Phillip hopes that the service won’t just help fans catch key moments for their favorite teams. He believes it could also help them discover exciting games that they might otherwise ignore. For example, he says, he recently analyzed the ratings on RUWT?! to find the most exciting NFL teams. The Steelers and Packers were comfortably in the top third, but the most exciting team of the season, according to RUWT?!, turned out to be the Washington Redskins. Phillip notes that they played a lot of close, “ulcer-inducing” games. 

“As a fan and researcher, I can see where there’s potential for this,” says John Fortunato, a professor of communication and media management at Fordham University who studies sports media.

Fortunato says the networks already do a good job of promoting games and making sure fans know when their favorite teams are playing and when a game is likely to be important. But he says he can envision a tool like RUWT?! being useful for games that don’t seem inherently interesting but wind up being exciting anyway. “If I’m out in the yard and I get a text that the game’s tied with 10 minutes to go, then, yeah, I could see myself stopping what I’m doing and going in to watch for half an hour,” he says.

The app itself is free, but Phillip hopes that the software’s potential to attract fans when they wouldn’t otherwise be watching will make it appealing for advertising or licensing deals. Phillip also thinks the technology could be incorporated into digital video recorders to make them smarter. “Sports is the most DVR-resistant genre on TV,” he says, noting that games can be delayed or go into overtime, making it hard to record them properly. He believes RUWT?! could help: for example, people could set a DVR equipped with RUWT?! to record exciting moments personalized to their interests.

For now, Phillip is bringing the capabilities of RUWT?! to television through Google TV, which corrals Internet video and broadcast and pay TV channels and makes them all searchable on a television set. Not including apps from Google’s launch partners, RUWT?! was the first Google TV app to be approved. The service is also available through e-mail and text message alerts, as a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox, and as an app for the desktop, major smart phones, and the Chrome store. 

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