Today, Sean Longworth joins host Jay Sharman on TWM’s Brand Story Inc. podcast. Sean Longworth is the Founder and CEO of the live streaming platform Hot Mic. In this episode, we talked to him about the current disruption in sports content and how Hot Mic helps re-aired content feel new.

Sean Longworth on Brand Story Inc.

Jay Sharman: And appreciate, Sean, you joining us during this time of quarantine.

Sean Longworth: Yes, you bet. Thanks for having me on Jay. I appreciate it.

Jay Sharman: Yes. I reached out to Sean. We happen to live in the same town, but he started up this company, which I’ll let him tell you about. But as we talk about this time of true disruption and opportunity, I think Sean’s company was one of the first that popped into mind, as folks are getting used to trying to consume sports content at home and there’s a lot of talk about how can we innovate.

I think Hot Mic is, of all the companies out there, I think toward the top of the list of companies that have a unique opportunity moving forward.

So in layman’s terms, I’ll turn it over to you, Sean. I’m a big fan of your company but I’d love to hear how you describe it.

Sean Longworth: Yes, sure. So Hot Mic is a live streaming platform, and it’s specifically designed for commentary in sync with what’s on TV. So in short, a lot of times people describe us as Twitch for TV.

So Twitch built a live streaming platform specifically for gamers in order to help them connect with fans while they’re playing a game. We saw a similar opportunity to do something around TV. A lot of us don’t game, I’m not a gamer myself, but I do like to watch sports. I like to watch movies and content on TV, and I always wanted a streaming platform that allowed me to connect with people at that time.

So we have specific features in our platform that enable that. And the most innovative one of the bunch is our ability to sync third-party commentary in a streaming platform to anything you’re watching on TV.

And you could imagine that’s super important for sports, but really for all content. If you’re watching a football game together, you need to see the touchdown at the exact same moment or else you have a huge possibility for spoilers.

And we’ve seen that a lot with Twitter and other live streaming platforms that people try to watch together. But they’re either seeing the reactions too late or they’re just getting spoiled and seeing a tweet or something come in before the touchdown even happens. That spoils the opportunity.

And we’ve solved that so that when people together on our platform and there’s somebody leading and directing the stream, he’s in perfect sync with all the viewers that are in the stream. And the chat room and everything is synchronized so that people can have fun, collect, be together, and enjoy the experience together without any spoilers.

Jay Sharman: And, in real layman’s terms, I mean I think, maybe I’ll try it and you can tell me if I butcher it. But, I mean this is really a modern-day derivative of the old, watching a live television game, turning your TV down and listening to your home radio broadcasters, right?

But just doing so now instead of listening to the radio, you can go onto Hot Mic, so if you’re watching an NBA game or an MLB game, you could turn down the television volume, be watching the game, and be pulling up the commentators of your choice to provide a more fun or maybe salacious, or a [Homer] broadcast that you’d want to enjoy more.

Do I have that correct?

Sean Longworth: Yes. So certainly the syncing piece is very similar, and that’s one of the ideas that gave me Hot Mic, is I’ve always been the type of guy that preferred the radio broadcast, and trying to sync it to the TV is frustrating. So I saw that as a problem that needed to be solved.

And I’ve been in the video tech space for a long time as well as my co-founder. So we kind of got together and really figured out how to solve that problem. And that was the very first thing we did.

But it’s a little bit more than that. Live streaming platforms in general, they’re social platforms. So while the alternative commentary is certainly a part of it, what most people come to live stream platforms for is the engagement. They want to chat, they want to engage, they want to talk. And that isn’t a part of the radio today.

Jay Sharman: Right.

Sean Longworth: So, while we think we have a very cool opportunity to take the radio feeds and synchronize them with the TV, which we would be excited to work with radio companies to do that. The bigger part is just kind of a creating a space for fans to connect and chat.

Jay Sharman: Yes. And to that point and… so I’m a big college basketball and college football fan. So if I’m watching a Big Ten game, I’ve got your streaming service, so I’ve got my phone in my hand, I can be selecting whichever commentators I want. I’m watching the game. I’m watching… just like most of us that are die-hard sports fans are engaging on multiple screens where you’re either texting your friends or following a Twitter feed. It’s the same thing, but that commentary is coming through that we get to select and then engage with people in that community. Correct?

Sean Longworth: Yes, that’s exactly it. And the people that… right now we’re an invite-only platform. So, we just work with sports personalities, athletes, radio personalities, podcasters, are approved on our platform to connect with fans.

And most people come because they have a relationship with that person, they listen to them on the radio or they listen to their podcast already. And what a great opportunity to watch a game together? So we’re creating that experience for them.

But yes, moving forward, longer-term, we’re going to open it up so that anybody… like you were talking about you and your friends being able to text, you should be able to connect and watch the game together and be in sync.

So if all of your guys are watching the game at the same moment, there are no spoilers, you have a chat room. And then there’s some engagement features around that, which is what we’re building in the platform. So it’s more than just chat, maybe there are some games that are played, and fun ways to engage around the game.

Jay Sharman: So, I’ve been a little vocal about this on social media right now. I feel that not all, but many sports media companies… and granted, as we tape this it’s the first full week in Illinois of being kind of shelter in place at home. So, maybe I’m being unfair, but I feel like a large proportion of sports media companies have just mailed it in. “Here’s reruns, we’re just going to rerun live games.” And we’re seeing it on national networks, on cable networks, et cetera.

This is a place where I think I see Hot Mic meets this new world that we’re in right now for the foreseeable future. I’d love to hear your spin as you’re watching these games and you think about how Hot Mic could be integrated, and what the potential is. Even right now in a rerun mindset of what’s going on.

Sean Longworth: Yes. I think we’re all caught flat-footed a little bit, so I feel sorry for the networks trying to find things to put in all these open slots right now. But the way I look at it is, if you’re going to try to breathe life back into a game, you should try to do something different.

Jay Sharman: Exactly.

Sean Longworth: And I would think if you’re going to, let’s say, play another Big Ten game with, let’s say, the Fab Five as an example, an old game, maybe you could use Hot Mic to bring all those players together and create a bunch of channels. Some channels for Wolverine fans and their opposing team fans, and then bring them together and you’ve got players and maybe some people of that era.

And that community a little bit where people are watching the game together but in a cool format that allows people to chat and have fun. Hot Mic’s available to do that today. And we are creating those things, we’re not doing it in partnership with the leagues yet, although we’re doing a little bit of that in Europe. We’re still not doing it here in the US but we’d love to, we’d love to create more rich experiences for these guys as they retread a lot of these games.

Jay Sharman: You can check out Hot Mic on Twitter. 

Sean, talk about the business model of this. It’s interesting because you said it’s invite-only right now, but my understanding of the vision is any Tom, Dick or Harry or Jane for that matter at home has the ability to become a broadcaster if you will.

And with the democratization that social media has afforded and streaming has afforded at the snap of a finger, I could potentially be one of these commentators.

Talk about that end of it and how the personality-driven nature of commentary for anyone who wants to be a part of this could unfold.

Sean Longworth: Yes. So we’re starting right now, invite-only because we wanted to keep it very high bar, and when people come to Hot Mic, they see a high level of experience. So we kind of set a high bar for what Hot Mic is.

But certainly, longer-term it’s a social platform. And we see it less as a place for broadcasters as people that want to lead watch parties. So there’s a lot of watch party apps that are getting hot right now and we’re a watch party app.

We’re just different in that where it’s a led watch party, somebody is leading it and that you could call that person a broadcaster or you could just call him somebody that wants to invite their friends and lead a party around an event.

And we see more of that as we kind of evolve out of the invite-only in the testing we’ve done, is to take this professional-level platform to do professional-level broadcasts, and to empower a lot of different people with that so people can have fun during the games.

Jay Sharman: I get a little nerdy and love to dive in as a fellow business owner on business models – share how broadcasters make money in your platform and how you make money in the platform.

Sean Longworth: Yes. So the key to making money with any type of live streaming app is watch time. You need people to come in and engage for long periods of time and come back. And when you have that, it enables a lot of different potential income opportunities, subscription advertising. Right now we have tipping involved in there, and then there’s also promotional and sponsorship opportunities.

All of those things can be enabled as well as gambling from these longer or engaged communities, and we saw that right off the bat. And that’s a difficult thing for live streaming apps. Facebook Live and Instagram Live, they have average watch times of five, six, seven minutes. Hot Mic’s different in that people come in and they’re generally… they come in because they want to see the whole game or the whole event that’s being broadcast.

So they stay for an average of 50, 60 minutes…

Jay Sharman: Wow.

Sean Longworth: … yes, which is really long. The only other live streaming platform that really competes is Twitch. And YouTube is up at around 40 minutes these days, they’ve done a really good job extending that over 20 years. But because people are coming together already for an event that is generally two, three hours long, we have really long watch times right away.

And that’s really… when you have really good watch times like that you can make a lot of different things happen. What we’ll probably end up doing longer-term, is some combination of subscription and advertising and sponsorships, and potentially just kind of a social model as well.

Jay Sharman: Awesome. Any anecdotal, short-term wins you could share, like some of the characters that you’ve blessed to become the broadcasters that are out there, and maybe a little bit more description of the vision that you see for fans, and the selection that they could have in terms of selecting the broadcasters on their favorite sport?

Sean Longworth: Yes, so I think if you look at the success we’ve had across different types of sports, I don’t know if we’ve had any more success than we’ve had in European football – or soccer as we call it here. and Premier League, they really just attached to this right away. And we’ve had not only success with podcasters and sports radio folks over there like we have here, we’ve had success with the clubs themselves. So we’re engaged with clubs like Man City and Liverpool and we’re talking to them.

We’ve already done testing with Man City and taking their broadcaster… the broadcaster that they have doing all the games, and getting him on Hot Mic so he can engage in chat. And before all this stuff shut down here and froze up with Coronavirus, they were using it as a way to broadcast from home.

So their lead broadcaster was doing his broadcast from home, watching on TV and just broadcasting it right there. We were taking the feed from the sounds of the game, because at the time there were still fans there. We’re taking all that and layering that on top of them, because we have a multi-layer system that allows us to do that.

And it sounded amazing. It sounded just like he was at the game doing the event, except it was on a social platform. It was very, very cool.

Jay Sharman: That’s awesome. I mean, I think that’s… speaking about opportunity, the notion of… a month or two ago, of a broadcaster not traveling to a game would have seemed laughable and quite candidly, moving forward, the opposite might be the norm.

The world that we’re in now, it’s going to be a while, who knows? We have no idea. But it’s again, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you. I just think your platform is just so right for the crazy world that we’ve now entered.

Sean Longworth: Yes. It’s going to be an interesting few months. Hopefully, things get back to normal, but certainly if there’s ways that we can help the ecosystem deliver a better product in the short term, we’d be excited to do that.

Jay Sharman: Awesome. So, play along for a little bit, when you started this company, which is relatively new, you had visions obviously of sports, but the same thing applies beyond sport right now. I mean, I think there’s a ton of rerun content in movies and things like that. Beyond sport, are there designs that you have for Hot Mic outside of the live sport or even replay sport realm?

Sean Longworth: Yes, it was interesting. So we went out and did a funding round in December and raised a few million dollars in seed capital. And a lot of the investment came from not only a couple of larger VCs, including Founders Fund, but also from Hollywood. And Hollywood was particularly interested because of the director’s commentary.

So you probably remember, I don’t know, when you used to put DVDs in, and a lot of times people would listen to the director’s commentary while you were watching the movie. And you might not be aware that that’s basically all but disappeared these days because Netflix doesn’t support it. And you can’t get it on Netflix or a lot of the other streaming platforms, and that’s how people watch movies these days.

And that’s very upsetting to a lot of Hollywood directors who want to give their commentary on movies, a lot of super fans that enjoyed it. And Hot Mic technology can be used for that because the way our syncing technology works is, all we need is to listen to the platform. And when somebody brings out their phone and they hit the sync button, you listen to the TV, we recognize what it is. And two, we know exactly where they are in that, so that we can sync the third party commentary to it.

So yes, it’s great for sports and critical for that. But if you think about movie commentary, it’s also really good for that. And you could watch something on Netflix or you could even be in the movie theater itself, and you could pull out Hot Mic and we can listen to the movie and say, okay, this is the movie and here’s the director’s commentary or commentary from other people or stars. And you could put it into your bud and listen to the director’s cut while you watch the movie.

Jay Sharman: It’s funny you mentioned that, just yesterday, I was talking to some high school friends who are movie buffs, and we were talking about exactly that. I remember Casablanca, and had the track and it was Roger Ebert with the director, and it was as fascinating watching that as the actual movie, just that depth. And then also, if you look at one of the more popular pop culture podcast, Bill Simmons Rewatchables which is him getting together, and it’s a wildly successful podcast without even having the visual. They’re talking for an hour to two hours about their favorite movies and breaking them down.

So there’s a lot of things in the marketplace that are already doing that, but none that are kind of merging what you just said. So that’s got to be pretty exciting.

Sean Longworth: Yes. And it’s to your point of breathing new life into old content. I mean, Casablanca, I’ve seen it a few times, I love the movie. But it’d be hard for me to pull out unless there was a reason for it. Right?

But if some famous director that I was a fan of said, “Hey, this is my favorite movie and I want you to watch it with me and I’ll talk through it.” Now I have an invitation that brings me back to that content. And that’s what we hope to do.

Jay Sharman: Yes, I mean exactly. And it’s one of the impetuses I wanted to get you on so quickly right now is, I can’t turn on a CBS or an ESPN without seeing these old games, and there’s not really any drama at all. You know what the outcome is-

Sean Longworth: Yes.

Jay Sharman: … and so I mean, to me, the next layer is, whether it’s a 1983 NC State College basketball game, or the 2017 world series, that next layer is giving… Anyone who’s going to stick around and watch that, the casual fan’s not going to watch, I think I saw Virginia, Purdue basketball was on.

Right now the average fan is not going to care about that, but for those who do, it’s what’s that layer enriched commentary. What are the stories that you don’t know that make you appreciate this game better?

Sean Longworth: Yes.

Jay Sharman: And if you’re an average fan, why the heck should I care about this if I’m not a… I guess aside from some seminal NFL title games or the NCAA national championships. For the sweet 16 game, give me some drama, give me the backstory, give me a… whether it’s first person or you’re diving into the players, and where they went and… where’s the drama? And I think that’s what excites me about the opportunity that you’re affording different companies.

Sean Longworth: Yes, I love to hear that. Yes, I agree Jay. I mean, I think if you’re going to have these old games on TV, the people who should be inviting you to watch it is not the networks, it’s the players themselves. Like, “Hey, I was in this game. Let me tell you what it was like from the bench.”

Jay Sharman: Yes.

Sean Longworth: Get all those guys in one place. Sync them all up and let people have fun bouncing in between channels and hearing these old stories. That’s a fun way to rewatch the game.

Jay Sharman: What are you seeing Sean right now? Walk me through your day in terms of… obviously you’ve got your own business that you’re running and pivoting like everyone else. But what types of positive disruption are you seeing out there right now in the marketplace around content consumption in general?

Sean Longworth: Yes, so I mean, obviously it’s a pretty myopic view. I look at things through the lens of Hot Mic these days. But what I see a lot of is people trying to figure out where people are going to be watching sports, and how people are going to be consuming sports in the future.

I see tons of innovation on the video side these days. We see that, we see between VR and new angles for cameras.

There are some really cool things they’re doing to enhance the video side. But I haven’t seen too much on the audio side. If you think of the way that they talk about the game and has it really changed too much from the days of Howard Cosell? It’s two dudes sitting next to each other commenting on the game.

I think it needs a lot of innovation, and that’s why we started Hot Mic, is we thought we could breathe some innovation into that space.

So, we’re only six months into our launch, but I see huge opportunities for innovation in the way people listen and engage around the game. And that’s what we’re hoping to provide.

Jay Sharman: So can I ask you personally, as an Indiana grad, is there a sports moment or a game that if were back on, that you would love to most apply Hot Mic to?

Sean Longworth: That’s awesome.

Jay Sharman: Some Calbert Cheaney game, or-

Sean Longworth: Yes. So when I was a senior, the Fab Five was the big deal in Michigan, and the Hoosiers had a really good team themselves. We went 2-0 in the regular season, we beat them both home and away, and they were two of the best college basketball team games I ever had.

And, but you had to experience them with the biased, or I should say, the unbiased announcers that had to call it both ways. But that’s one of those things where you just really want to be with fans that are screaming for you and not having an unbiased approach.

And that’s what almost everybody on How Mic is, they’re rooting for somebody. They’re not taking an unbiased approach.

Jay Sharman: So once you let the floodgates open here, right now, I mean you still have a certification, maybe you can talk about that. On your website you can apply to become a broadcaster. What is your critical mass or what does your successful vision state look like? Is it the type of thing where you’re an NFL fan and there’s a Chicago Bears game and you have your pick of different, or would there be one Bears group? How would that work in your world?

Sean Longworth: Yes. I think for us it’s a little bit more about making sure our technology is good enough for the average fan to come on and have a successful experience. We spent a lot of time, early on, on the front end of our technology, the apps, the syncing technology, the engagement tools to give fans a good experience.

Sean Longworth: But the back end as far as how to get going with a live stream and a portal to kind of help people out. That’s still a little bit raw.

So we have a production team and we hand-hold all of our broadcasters right now. So we help them out, we help them go live. And that’s not really a scalable system where we think about hundreds or thousands of people getting on and doing that.

So, we’re just getting through that process right now and hand holding all of the broadcasters.

But we’re pretty close. I think we’re only about a month away to where we have a portal where it’s super easy to go live. And then I think, at that point, when we get there, then we can open it up and let people come in and be confident that everyone’s going to have a good experience.

Jay Sharman: Awesome. Well Sean, totally appreciate you jumping on here at Brand Story Inc. Very exciting times for your company. Best of success and we will definitely be checking back with you as you continue to disrupt the sports media and beyond the spaces that you’re in.

Sean Longworth: Cool. Thank you very much Jay, I appreciate you having me on.

Jay Sharman: Thanks Sean.

Thanks For listening to Brand Story Inc. We’ll be back next week with another conversation digging into the ways companies are becoming like media companies. Be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and give me a follow on Twitter at @_JaySharman, and on LinkedIn.

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