Mobile ESPN to relaunch through Verizon

By BRUCE MEYERSON,
AP Technology Writer
Thu Feb 8, 12:31 AM ET

ESPN is relaunching its shuttered cell phone service through Verizon Wireless, this time delivering its flashy feed of sports scores, news and video highlights through a top industry player instead of competing for subscribers with its own full-blown wireless brand.

The multiyear agreement giving Verizon Wireless exclusive U.S. rights to offer the Mobile ESPN application on its V Cast phones was expected to be announced on Thursday, executives at both companies said on condition of anonymity because the deal had not yet been finalized.

The companies also planned to announce that a broadcast TV service for cell phones that Verizon plans to introduce will feature an ESPN channel with much of the same programming being shown on its sports cable networks. Verizon expects to offer the service over MediaFLO — a separate wireless network developed by Qualcomm Inc. that can broadcast up to 20 TV channels — in at least one market by the end of March.

The Mobile ESPN service, expected to launch in the coming months, is to be included free as part of the $15 a month or $3 a day charge for V Cast's assorted multimedia offerings, the executives said.

The Verizon relationship is the first example of the new strategy that ESPN executives promised last September in announcing they were pulling the plug on Mobile ESPN as a standalone cell phone company featuring its own handsets, calling plans, customer service and monthly phone bills.

That ambitious venture, launched in late 2005 by parent company Walt Disney Co., is believed to have signed up fewer than 30,000 customers despite drawing positive reviews for the sophisticated multimedia application that ESPN created to deliver its popular TV and Web content within the cramped constraints of a cell phone.

By contrast, Verizon Wireless has 59 million subscribers, a third of whom have phones compatible with V Cast.

"Not all people with V Cast-capable handsets use V Cast. We expect ESPN will drive additional adoption," the Verizon executive said.

The companies declined to disclose the financial terms or exact length of the deal, though one executive noted that a multiyear arrangement is lengthier than a typical wireless content agreement.

The Mobile ESPN application will be adapted to all phones compatible with V Cast, starting with perhaps a couple of models at the outset, the executive said.

Mobile ESPN offers real-time scoring updates, video highlights, short newscasts and news alerts. Many features can be customized around a user's favorite sports or teams. Participants in ESPN.com fantasy sports will be able to manage their teams via cell phone.

Verizon has been beefing up V Cast with marquis names in hopes of generating more revenue from non-voice services as it invests billions to upgrade its cell network for speedier data connections. In late November, the company reached deals to feature user-generated video from YouTube and Revver.com.

The shutdown of Mobile ESPN as an independent wireless carrier marked the first major bust in a rush of specialized cell ventures targeting niche audiences they contend are underserved by the Cingulars and Verizons of the world.

Last year, Disney said it had invested a combined $150 million in developing Mobile ESPN and Disney Mobile, another so-called "MVNO," or mobile virtual network operator, that is still available. An MVNO doesn't have its own wireless network. Instead, it puts its brand on another wireless operator's service — whose name is hidden from the customer — and offers its own lineup of handsets and calling plans.

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