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Are you a sports fan? Are you a developer? If you answered yes to both questions, ESPN wants to talk to you.

Why? Because the sports media giant has jumped on the API bandwagon and is courting developers who can take its content and data to build cool sports apps.

On the surface, the ESPN Developer Center looks inviting.

There's just one problem: if you're a sport-loving developer hoping to build a cool app that leverages ESPN's content and data, chances are you're going to be disappointed.

That's because some of ESPN's APIs are only available to "premium partners" and the public ones don't permit commercial usage (eg. you can't sell an app that uses ESPN's APIs, or display ads next to content pulled from ESPN). There are strict branding and attribution requirements and it appears the usage limits are very low, with public developers being allowed up to 2,500 API requests per day.

The bottom line: if you're not an ESPN partner, you're very limited in what you can do, and chances are whatever you do will benefit ESPN far more than it will benefit you. Given that developers have plenty of other APIs on which they can build monetizable products, that obviously makes ESPN's API far less appealing. So it's not entirely surprising that while tech bloggers are eating it up, the people who actually build things, developers, are largely unimpressed.

To be fair to ESPN, its API isn't useless. It could in fact be a great API. The real problem is that ESPN, in an apparent effort to look innovative and open, is promoting its API to the entity it's least useful to -- the average developer.

Instead of trying to woo the public, who ESPN should have known would be turned off by low limits and burdensome restrictions, ESPN should be focusing on building relationships with commercial partners that can actually put its API to good use. Behind the scenes, where it actually matters.

The lesson here for companies looking at launching an API: APIs are a means to an end. At the end of the day, they're simply another interface through which third parties can tap into your data and functionality. Depending on the nature of your business and what you're trying to accomplish, they don't always need to be public, and if you're serious about moving your business forward with your API, your API strategy needs to consist of far more than just launching something publicly for PR fodder.

Patricio Robles

Published 5 March, 2012 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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