by Thomas Wailgum

ESPN’s Mobile Phone Bounced from the Playing Field

Sep 29, 20063 mins

Less than a year after ESPN spectacularly launched its Mobile ESPN product on Super Bowl Sunday 2006, the company decided to shut it down. ESPN won’t have to sell off its cell phone towers and wireless networking equipment, however, because with the Mobile ESPN service, ESPN was acting as an MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator.

An MVNO doesn’t operate its own wireless networks, like a traditional carrier such as Verizon Wireless. Businesses such as ESPN purchase minutes of use from mobile phone operators, in ESPN’s case Sprint, and offer wireless services with their brand firmly attached. In essence, the MVNO experience is the marketing department at its finest — extending the brand of an already well-known entity to offer more of its (presumably) unique services to (naturally) make more money for said entity.

Apparently Disney (ESPN’s parent company) “flagged” ESPN for not having enough “players on the field,” as in not enough subscribers willing to shell out the money for what ESPN claimed was a sports fanatic’s dream phone.

It’s not like this came out of nowhere. Back in July, a Merrill Lynch media analyst suggested that Disney should shut the service down. The analyst, Jessica Reif Cohen, predicted that Mobile ESPN was likely to attract just 30,000 subscribers by the end of the year. Which, for those of you scoring at home, was really bad.

Back in April, Wes Henderek, a senior analyst for wireless services at market researcher CurrentAnalysis, told me that because of the huge financial and technological investments, an MVNO is an extremely risky endeavor for companies. “The market is just being flooded, and there’s no way all of these MVNOs are going to survive,” he said.

But if you look back even further in Mobile ESPN’s development, maybe the product was doomed even before the first Super Bowl commercial was filmed. In my May 1, 2006, profile of ESPN technology chief Chuck Pagano, I discovered that ESPN’s IT department wasn’t even aware of the project until it was a “done deal,” said ESPN’s IT head Paul Cushing. When, in fact, Cushing and his staff found out about the project, they were able to deliver some key pieces of technology that were initially going to be outsourced. If IT had been brought in earlier on the initiative, maybe IT could have made a better impact, Cushing said.

Hmmmm. Could IT’s lack of involvement been a reason for the death of Mobile ESPN? Probably not. But it does raise some interesting questions, doesn’t it?