Fourth and long for mobile video

ESPN offers to give away college football games to mobile customers in attempt to spark interest.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
2 min read
Jason Paul is a huge Oklahoma Sooners' fan who would love to buy ESPN's new college football package for mobile phones.

But he won't. Disney-owned ESPN is going to broadcast 25 live college football games in their entirety to Mobile ESPN subscribers. But to get the games, customers have to swap their phone and service plans for those offered by ESPN, and Paul has no intention of doing that.

"I'm not going to risk getting a poor phone or plan just to get the games," said Paul, a surgical tools salesman from San Francisco.

Convincing people to jump to a new service is just one of the problems Mobile ESPN faces. And ESPN isn't the only competitor in the mobile Internet sector struggling to get people excited about watching TV on a cell phone. Supporters of mobile applications predicted years ago that by now, consumers would be clamoring for these kinds of cell phone features. But, one look at the mobile climate, and there's nothing but crickets chirping.

Rob Sanderson, an analyst at American Technology Research, said it's not yet time to throw in the towel, but acknowledged that at the very least, the market doesn't appear ripe.

"Maybe it never works, but it's extremely early yet," Sanderson said.

Analysts have noted that something is amiss when ESPN has trouble selling its bread-and-butter programming. On the strength of one of the world's most recognizable sports brands, ESPN thought it could tap into its loyal fan base to sell sports content to mobile subscribers. Instead, Disney CEO Robert Iger has acknowledged that sales have been "lower than hoped."

Merrill Lynch has issued projections that show subscribers coming in at around 30,000 by the end of the year. That's a tiny fraction of the more than 90 million households that receive ESPN's TV broadcasts.

This hasn't stopped ESPN from aiming high when it comes to offering new technologies and services. The new college football offering makes ESPN the first U.S. broadcaster to offer a live sporting event over a mobile platform.

Rebecca Gertsmark, a spokeswoman for Mobile ESPN, defended the company by saying it is barely six months into the service. She also noted the sports network has a long history of successfully nurturing new technologies such as HDTV. The network's adoption of high-definition broadcasting has been cited by the technology's supporters as a possible tipping point for the format.

With this kind of background, the company has faced down skeptics before.

"Twenty-seven years ago, what do you think people were saying about an all-sports network?" Gertsmark said.