Mobile ESPN: Let The Games Begin!
A sports-centric guy phone offers real-time scores, analysis, even video highlights--and ushers in a new era of specialized handsets.
By Peter Lewis

(FORTUNE Magazine) - The mobile phone is among the most intimate of personal technologies. The owner whispers secrets into it, caresses it and holds it to a cheek, tickles it with flirty text messages, and sprinkles it with the occasional tear. So it's a shame that most people lavish this intimacy on generic Can't Tell 'Em Apart handsets from the usual Bucket o' Minutes mobile service carriers.

That may be changing. If the Mobile ESPN MVP phone I've been testing is any indicator--and it is, of course--mobile phones are about to become highly personalized and deserving of the intimacy their owners bestow on them. Taking advantage of the recent arrival of high-speed mobile audio, video, and data services, well-known companies like ESPN, Disney, and others are getting into the boutique phone business, offering new phones and wireless features that target the most avid followers of their brand's image, personality, and style.

The ESPN brand means sports. Why would a hard-core sports fan use a phone service designed for every Tom, Dick, and Harry, when he can belch his audibles into a phone custom-tailored for LeBron, A-Rod, and Jake the Snake? The Mobile ESPN phone offers anytime, anywhere access to real-time scores, statistics, news, analysis, and sports video highlights. The phone can ring with your team's fight song, help settle bar bets, and provide a crucial edge in managing a fantasy sports team (market researchers estimate more than 15 million Americans spend hours each week managing fantasy sports teams).

Mobile ESPN launches nationwide on Super Bowl Sunday, with a $199 mobile handset and monthly service fees of $35 to $225 a month, depending on the number of voice minutes; all plans include "unlimited" access to the sports service, with "unlimited" defined as up to 35 megabytes of downloads per month. The ESPN pricing is roughly $10 to $50 a month higher than comparable non-sports-service plans.

Whoa! Time out! you say. What's with the bonus-baby pricing? And for that matter, what is ESPN doing with its own mobile-phone service? Isn't the sports franchise, best known for its cable-TV channels and magazine, playing out of its league? Let's huddle to discuss how ESPN got into the phone business and why it's just one of dozens of familiar brands we can expect to offer alternative phone service in the coming year.

Mobile ESPN is what's known as a mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO. These alternative mobile-phone services typically buy excess capacity on the major carriers' networks and outsource all the back-end network stuff like billing and technical support. Some add content or services geared toward niche markets like music, sports, comedy, or videogames, and some capitalize on a popular brand name. The first MVNOs targeted the young and the financially fragile, but the next wave is going upstream.

Inspired by the technocentric youth culture of Asia and Europe, where mobile phones and services are more advanced than in the U.S. and where young professionals are more willing to pay for the latest gear, lifestyle-oriented MVNOs (with names like Amp'd, Helio, Voce, Movida) are springing up to cash in on the coming mobile revolution.

Do you want a phone that immediately identifies you as a tech-savvy hipster? Are you interested in receiving the latest hip-hop music videos and songs on your phone the minute they become available? How about voice and data services in Spanish? Though the handsets themselves will be slick, it's really the content that defines these next-generation phone services.

Mobile ESPN currently offers only one phone, the Sanyo MVP. At first glance it looks like any clamshell-style cellphone, jazzed up with a manly red-and-black color scheme. The real differences are the high-resolution 2.1-inch main display and the high-speed data network it uses for downloading data, audio and video files, web browsing, and managing mobile e-mail.

There's also a second, external LCD display, just an inch across, for displaying caller ID pictures. (You don't have pictures of your friends for caller ID, you say? Fortunately, the MVP phone has a 1.3-megapixel still camera with a built-in flash.)

Mobile ESPN hitches a ride on the Sprint broadband EVDO (evolution data optimized) mobile data network, which, at 256 kilobits per second or higher, is many times faster than dial-up PC modem speeds. The speed allows Mobile ESPN to deliver small but crisp and colorful video clips to the screen of the phone. (It's a good thing the phone is aimed at the 18- to 34-year-old market, because text and videos are too tiny for older fans to see without reading glasses.)

Pressing the "E" button (E for ESPN) transforms the MVP phone into an online sports service. The left sideline of the display screen is devoted to an up-and-down menu, offering scores, news, the latest insights from ESPN sports columnists, a special Fantasy sports channel, video highlights from today's or yesterday's games, and customizable buttons to deliver news of your favorite teams and players.

With just a couple of clicks, Mobile ESPN delivers league standings, team and individual statistics, injury reports, trade news, player rankings, schedules, scoreboards--including pitch-by-pitch gamecasts--and the latest betting lines. There's even a media guide to the games on TV and radio.

If you're a hard-core sports fan, a fantasy-team manager, or a sports gambler, the Mobile ESPN wireless phone service is the greatest guy toy since the remote control--if you live in one of the 64 cities where Sprint's EVDO service is offered and if you don't choke on the prices of the phone and ESPN service. If your city does not offer Sprint EVDO or if you travel often to minor-league towns, you'll be as frustrated and forlorn as a Cubs fan. (Still, based on the prices people are paying on eBay for scalper tickets to the Super Bowl, there appears to be a big market for a premium sports-oriented phone service.)

Final score: Mobile ESPN is a winner, and a good example of the coming era of highly personalized phones and mobile content services.

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