John Shahidi’s five-employee startup, RockLive, wasn’t expecting a call from the world’s fastest man. The summer before last year’s Olympics, managers for Usain Bolt wanted the app developer to help enhance the sprinter’s brand for the London Games. With the Jamaican runner expected to win several gold medals (he ended up with three), his management wanted to make use of his online followers to increase his commercial value to sponsors such as Gatorade, Puma, and Hublot Swiss watches. Shahidi’s team built a simple action game, Bolt!, in which the athlete fights off pirates to claim his gold, with the occasional Gatorade energy boost. The free app has been downloaded more than 3 million times.
From Tiger Woods and former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner to Ultimate Fighting Championship’s Georges St-Pierre, current and former sports stars are contracting with software developers to launch branded apps and expand their marketing reach. “We’ve been approached by a ton of different athletes,” says Shahidi, whose first app, RunPee, tells filmgoers the ideal times to take bathroom breaks based on lulls in movies’ plots. He’s also built a soccer app for Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo and a boxing app for Mike Tyson. “With their growing numbers on social media, they have the power to build something that they can co-own vs. just giving their name out as part of a licensing deal,” he says.
While there are hundreds of thousands of apps for sale on Apple’s (AAPL) App Store and Google’s (GOOG) Play service, athletes have an outsize ability to cut through the noise. “There is a major discovery problem among app developers right now, and this helps,” Shahidi says. “The celebrity-branded apps have a competitive advantage.”
Some athletes’ apps are tied to their sport, as with San Francisco Giants slugger Buster Posey’s home run derby-themed Buster Bash. Others, like Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez’s exercise-regimen app FitStar, are more general fitness tools. While none of these projects are likely to win any design awards, some athletes’ willingness to give their backing is a milestone in the development of the smartphone and tablet app economy, which is projected to grow to $84.5 billion this year, says Carl Howe, an analyst for market researcher Yankee Group. Four-time Super Bowl champion Joe Montana has spent $100,000 to build iMFL, a fantasy-football app. “It indicates the mobile economy is a pretty mainstream thing,” says Howe, when “jocks can do it, too.”
That’s not to say every athlete-endorsed app is a sure thing. In March, sports apps comprised about 3.4 percent of programs with active users in Apple’s App Store and Google Play, compared with 4.3 percent the previous year. Tyson, whose boxing game had an OK run in the App Store before being removed for updating, did little beyond lending his name and doing some marketing appearances. “My wife told me to do it,” Tyson says. Montana, who joined forces with a software developer living in his San Francisco high-rise, hasn’t forgotten his short-lived Sega (6460:JP) console football game from two decades ago. (A rival series that John Madden endorsed became the long-running standard.) Still, neither is giving up on the app market. “This space is exciting,” says Montana, who’s helping to refine test copies of his fantasy-football app, such as suggesting a limit on the time between plays. Tyson says, “I’m the kind of geek that will kick your butt.”
App deals between athletes and software developers are structured in various ways but often involve joint ownership, with both sides sharing revenue from downloads and ads. The sports stars’ agents and managers typically take the lead on the deals. Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles connected Gonzalez, the Atlanta Falcons tight end, with former Digg Chief Strategy Officer Mike Maser. Their fitness app is slated for release this month, and Maser says Gonzalez has been intimately involved with development, refining workouts and filming several days’ worth of routines that are incorporated into the software. The project has shown enough promise that Maser intends to introduce other athlete and celebrity-driven apps focused on fitness. “The app ecosystem is maturing to a place where it’s a viable medium for athletes and celebrities to participate,” he says.
For garage developers without access to a brand-name sports star, the success of pro athlete apps may mean a big new barrier to entry as they stake their coding reputation and, in some cases, their savings on a piece of mobile software. “It’s definitely not like the early days of the App Store,” says Eliran Sapir, the co-founder of Apptopia, an online marketplace created for developers to sell their apps to other companies. “A lot of developers are getting fatigued because they realize there’s not a future here.” As the number of star-backed ventures with big marketing budgets grows, unknowns without lucrative connections may get crowded out. “The era of the garage developer may be over,” Yankee Group’s Howe says.