"If you’re a sports fan, I think you're going to be very happy with it," Apple's Eddy Cue explains how the tech giant made its new Sports app

Apple Sports
(Image credit: Apple)

If Eddy Cue were a baseball player, he might step up to the plate, grin widely, point his bat at the lights over center field, and say, "This one's for the fans," before slugging a homer over the centerfield fence. I mean, I'm guessing here, but if Apple's SVP of Internet Software and Services could announce Apple's new Sports app thematically, that might be the way.

Cue's enthusiasm for the new app, which drops in the App Store in the US, UK, and Canada today (February 21) for iPhones running iOS 17.2 or later (there's no iPad or Vision Pro support for now) and which delivers real-time stats, plays, and more across a growing array of major league sports, was evident when I spoke to him last week.

"If you’re a sports fan, I think you're going to be very happy with it," Cue told me after giving me a brief, whirlwind demo of the card-based app. "It’s the type of app you use multiple times a day. You don’t spend very long. You don’t spend 15 to 30 minutes, because you go in there [Cue starts snapping his fingers for emphasis], get some information, get some data, whatever it is you’re looking for, and then you’re done and you’re out."

It's true – this is one of Apple's most singular apps, laser-focused on delivering instant details or recent games, upcoming ones, and especially games in progress. There are no photos or video replays; just loads and loads of stats organized in clear, colorful (team colors of course) cards. The whole thing is organized by leagues, then teams, then games.

Cue, who's been using the app for months, called the experience "very clean."

Apple Sports

Apple Sports welcome screen. (Image credit: Apple)

Sports your way

It's also completely customizable, so that when you open it you're not staring at a random collection of in-progress games from, say, MLS, or the NBA. Instead, you get to choose your preferred leagues and favorite teams (and not just US teams. The app already supports Bundesliga, LaLiga, Liga MX, Ligue 1, and Premier League). The app then front-loads details for your teams' games, letting you see quick overviews and standings, or dig into individual game cards with details on who's playing, who's benched, and who's making and missing the big plays.

When you're in a game, the data is, Apple claims, as close to real-time as possible. It's essentially live play-by-play, which Apple demonstrated by... well, by showing me a video of how the app updated during a recent NBA game. In all fairness, my demo took place when there were literally no major league games (that the app could cover) in progress.

For his part, Cue is quite focused on the real-time nature of the app. We talked a bit about the delays in some of the recent Super Bowl 58 streams, which by some measures were over a minute.

"Obviously, in the world of today, that is a real problem. Maybe 20-30 years ago that would not be a problem, but today, that’s a problem," said Cue, who was actually at the game, which made me realize that he saw the 49er's unbelievable call to take the ball first in overtime live, and long before – in sports-fan time – I knew about it watching the game on Paramount Plus.

The reality is that people can go elsewhere to get what they think is real-time sports data and no one expects to wait a day, let alone a minute. However, what Apple is trying to accomplish with Sports may be unprecedented: on-demand, live play-by-play across a dozen leagues, hundreds of teams, and untold games.

"The fun thing about this, even though it sounds simple – all it is is we’re doing scores and stats – it’s a fairly complicated problem," Cue told me.

Apple's Eddy Cue

Apple senior vice president of Services Eddy Cue looks on before the start of the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference on June 05, 2023 in Cupertino, California. Apple CEO Tim Cook kicked off the annual WWDC23 developer conference. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) (Image credit: Getty Images)

A data problem

Apple Sports

Apple Sports game stats. (Image credit: Apple)

I know that teams and sports fans live and die on stats, which led me to assume that all these teams probably just opened the pipelines to all their game data. That turns out not to be the case at all.

"Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as I would’ve hoped," said Cue. "The leagues don’t really have [the real-time data]... So, there’s a bunch of third parties that the leagues have kind of authorized, whatever, partnered with, whatever the right word is, that provide the data, and fortunately or unfortunately, mostly unfortunately for this case, there’s lots of them. because there’s so many different sports and so many different data points."

Apple ended up spending much of its Sports app engineering time aggregating the data and ensuring that it's accurate (critical) and fast. That means a robust client/server architecture that minimizes latency. That hard work behind the scenes, though, has no place showing up in the app, and Cue repeatedly pointed to what he sees as the app's fundamental simplicity.

Keeping it simple means that Sports comes across as more of a stats book than a sporting multimedia fest. There are links out to, for instance, Apple TV, and a place to help you quickly find where a game is streaming, but Sports won't incorporate the stream.

Sports also invites an element of that other favorite sporting pastime: betting. Sports will show live betting odds for a game – supplied for now by Draft Kings – that, just like everything else, will change in real time with the gameplay. If, for instance, Lebron James makes a basket against the Nicks, the odds might change in favor of the Lakers.

While there are some bits of AI built into the app, none of it is used to help determine the game odds. I asked Cue about any gambling addiction warnings the app might include. "[There's] nothing at this time, other than you can turn it off," he told me. To do so, Sports users will need to head into the settings.

So many sports

Apple Sports

Apple sports manage page. (Image credit: Apple)

Cue seemed most excited when talking about the Sports app update pipeline, telling me that users should expect frequent updates that add new leagues and other features.

"There’s a lot of sports we want to add," said Cue, who pointed to the upcoming March Madness college basketball tournament at the top of his list. "You have this issue of brackets and understanding that, and it’s not just a simple showing a score and things. We’ve got ideas on what to do." Cue said he expects to have something on Sports in time for the tournament.

I do wonder how ready Sports is for the fans' almost unlimited appetite for sports info. I still remember a family friend who would stack televisions on top of each other so he could watch three baseball games at once – at least now he has split-screen and picture-in-picture. How, I wondered, would Sports satisfy that enthusiast? How could he have two or more game cards on his iPhone screen at once?

I caught a twinkle in Cue's eye, "Yeah, we recommend they buy a second iPhone," he joked (and yes, we all laughed). Cue smiled impishly, "I couldn’t help myself, that was like a softball in sports terms."

Cue collected himself and admitted, "Right now, we don’t have a really good way to do that. It’s an interesting idea. I understand the request."

Even though Sports is not trying to compete with ESPN (as a news site or a TV channel), it will have various touch points where it can reach out to the fans and make sure they know what's going on in their favorite game or league. Live game info will show up in the iPhone's Dynamic Island, and on the lock screen's Live Activities.

On the alert

Apple Sports

Apple Sports My Teams page (Image credit: Apple)

What sports won't do, though, is overload you with game moments. If, for instance, the Mets are a strike away from a no-hitter, the next Super Bowl is in overtime, or Messi just did a Pele kick to win the game, Sports will not be the one to send the alert. That's because Apple TV, and its various sports integrations with, for instance, the MLS and MLB, will handle that alert.

"It's one of the things that we care about deeply," said Cue. "If you’re into sports and have a lot of apps that follow sports, one of the problems you run into is that you immediately get the same thing seven ways from Sunday... We do not want to send you more than one alert about any of the information related to sports."

With the Paris Summer Olympics on the horizon, I wondered how Sports might handle the two-week-long, multi-discipline event. Sports, though, probably won't be covering the event.

"No, not at this time. I think it’s a little late for that for us around it," said Cue – but it's also clear that he's thought about it. "I think it’s an interesting one. Highly complicated, because every sport is very different in how it gets scored and measured. You’ve got gymnastics that’s all like voting and you’ve got speed skating that is time-based, and then you have some that’s distance-based, and then you have some that’s score-based. So... I think would require some significant work. It’s something we thought about. Hopefully, we can get to it."

Sports also won't support any kind of community aspect, not even direct sharing of what you're currently tracking. That feels like it might be an oversight, but Cue notes that Apple will collect feedback to further assess if it should enhance the app's sharing features.

A league of possibilities

Apple Sports

Apple Sports game stats page. (Image credit: Apple)

While Sports is focused on major league sports, Cue admits that the app team has thought about more local sports, including high school, college, and even Little League. Okay, maybe not Little League, though Cue didn't immediately reject my suggestion that it would be cool to know how the other teams did in your league, at least the day after.

"Probably reasonable to say, if you’re were doing Little League games, you don’t need to have all the stats, because you’re not gonna have that, we’re not gonna get them," said Cue, noting that while real-time Little League stats would be really hard, day-after stats could work.

Apple has, Cue noted, thought about these and myriad other possibilities, especially as sports like lacrosse, college baseball, and women's field hockey grow in popularity. "Just shows you, there’s a wealth of opportunity here," he added.

Cue's perspective on the potential and future of the Sports app matters. It's not just that he runs one of Apple's fastest-growing and most successful businesses (Services); Cue is also one of the company's longest-tenured employees. He knows Apple, he knows sports, and he knows Apple customers.

"We’re really excited about it because, I think, this is my 36th year at Apple, and the one thing I love about being here is we’re very focused on the end-user and what [an app] like to use. In this case, this is all about the fan, and so it’s really been a continuation as we’ve gotten into sports; we’ve been ultra-focused on what do fans want, and what is it that’s hard for them?"

I think the fans want a home run – and it sounds like Apple and Cue are already pointing to the outfield.

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Lance Ulanoff
Editor At Large

A 38-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.