Thu, Nov 10, 2005 - Page 19 News List

ESPN markets `greatest invention in the world'

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

For ESPN, the inexorable result of 26 years of feeding sports to millions of people and fueling fans' desires for ever bigger screens is surprisingly small.

It is, in fact, really small, yet designed to drive the supersized ESPN brand further into the sports zeitgeist.

ESPN has crammed everything it has learned about television into the guts of a black Sanyo cellphone with red keys and a 2.1-inch screen that dishes out scores, highlights, news, trivia and fantasy content with depth and zippy clarity. In time, it will deliver full games shrunk to 1/15th or 1/20th their usual television size.

This is Mobile ESPN, an empire in a pocket, a digitally endowed companion with a tiny Dickie V. or a wee Chris Berman available at a button's push for those minutes and hours spent away from one's television.

"What's next, implants?" said Keith Olbermann, a former anchor of SportsCenter who is now the host of MSNBC's weeknight Countdown show. "They were once bound by cable. It was a cable success. Now, they're detaching from cable. Just jam it in your pocket, and you're ESPN."

The idea behind Mobile ESPN was to make the omnivorous sports media empire more available than it already was by merging what fans expect on TV and online at ESPN.com into a pre-eminent third screen in sports.

"Our mission is to be everywhere fans watch, talk, debate and enjoy sports," said Salil Mehta, executive vice president of ESPN Enterprises. "We don't believe in one screen. We believe in all three."

It was Mehta, then an executive with Walt Disney Co, which owns 80 percent of ESPN, who suggested last year that ESPN develop a cell phone. Eventually, ESPN would customize an expensive cellphone with Sanyo, and sign with Sprint Nextel to carry the service on its high-speed network.

"Life will never get in the way of sports again," Mehta said, echoing a planned advertising campaign.

ESPN's aspirations have grown as the cell phone market has matured; there are 194 million wireless phone users in the US. "For ESPN, it means trying to get people to leave another carrier, and the way to do it is with something different," said Linda Barrabee, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group, a technology research firm. "The market is primed for differentiation."

ESPN's desire for cellular success is part of its yen for sports-world primacy. In 1979, few could envision the growth of ESPN into a media behemoth that inspires awe, jealousy and contests to be a SportsCenter anchor." But one ESPN network begat many more; a radio network was created; so were ESPN.com, the most visited sports Web site; a magazine; a restaurant chain; trading cards; and books.

Along with it all came the highest monthly subscriber fee for any basic cable channel, ferocious marketing, an enormous cash flow and a healthy ego. An online Mobile ESPN ad proclaims that the new phone is: "The Greatest Invention in the History of the World. Ever."

Hyperbole aside, ESPN says that getting into the cellular business is a necessary step to serve its audience beyond continuing to feed its sports data to Verizon, Sprint, Cingular and T-Mobile wireless customers.

"This is a time when consumers want whatever they want wherever they want it on the device they want," said John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president for content. "It's no longer about just sitting in front of the TV."

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