ESPN’s Mobile Ambitions

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First there was ESPN the network. Then a second network, ESPN2. Then ESPN the Magazine; ESPNZone the restaurant; and ESPN Broadband (now called ESPN 360).

By next year, another iteration will hit the streets, ESPN Mobile.

The all-sports network plans to launch its own branded cell-phone service with Sprint Corp., providing specialized sports content to rabid sports fans early next year.

In technical wireless parlance, ESPN will become an MVNO, a mobile-video-network operator, leasing transport from Sprint, working with phone manufacturers on the capabilities of the handset and handling the billing and customer-service acquisition.

The service will be built around content consumers know well. “We have a laser-focused connection with sports fans,” says Manish Jha, senior vice president of ESPN Mobile.

Jha, who led ESPN’s video-on-demand and interactivity efforts in the past, started investigating the mobile-device market several years ago.

Last year, ESPN announced plans to launch cell-phone service with Sprint, and it debuted on Verizon Communications Inc.’s VCast service in January.

A Measured Approach

Otherwise, it has taken a measured approach to the new platform. “We sat out the first phase,” Jha acknowledges. “We didn’t think the quality was there.”

But the newer EVDO (Evolution Data Only) Technology, which Verizon is using and that Sprint will use, provides video at 15 frames per second, relatively close to TV’s 24 frames per second. “We believe we can program very high video using that network,” Jha says.

ESPN runs a mix of highlights and original content on VCast. That and other content will appear on the cell-phone service.

ESPN executives have been tight lipped about exactly what content consumers will see, but it has mobile rights to some Monday Night Football content, as well as some of the network’s original content, including its movies and X Games.

“While highlights are important, it’s story telling and attitude that sports fans really value,” Jha says. ESPN learned from VCast that fans viewing content on mobile phones are attracted to analysis and commentary, plus putting events in context.

There’s also a production learning curve with VCast, which carries about 30 clips a day from ESPN.

Refreshed Daily

The clips, which run from 30 seconds to several minutes, are refreshed daily. They are produced at ESPN’s master digital facility in Bristol, Conn., then sent to Verizon’s network.

ESPN Mobile has two desks at the facility, and has access to the hundreds of hours of content that comes in each day for the pieces it creates for VCast.

Jha says ESPN has been in discussions with Rogers Cable’s MobiTV, SmartVideo Technologies Inc. and others about their mobile services. “We serve fans, whatever the technology and whatever provider they use,” he adds.

The MVNO gives ESPN more than just the chance to put their name on a cell phone. “We will have the ability to influence software layers and control the content-distribution system,” he says. “We’ll be able to influence the handset manufacturers and the software stacks in the handset,” but ESPN has not announced any phone manufacturers to date.

“We want to create an easy-to-use device with a level of personalization,” he adds. “We want to make it very, very robust from a hiding-the-technology-complexity perspective. The overall experience, from customer care to the purchase experience, will be tailored to a sports fan.” Instead of holiday sales promotions, there may be trips to the college basketball Final Four.

Competitive Pricing

Jha says pricing for the base cell phone service, as well as premium packages, will be competitive. He also says he has had informal discussions with cable operators about marketing the service.

MSOs, of course, are also looking into how they’ll play in wireless. “They are uniquely positioned in lot of ways,” he says, because they have “existing customer-care, billing and content relationships.” There may be an opportunity to partner with the cable brand, he says, adding a mobile component to the bundle.

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