Sports net dishes out stats to its gadget-loving core demo

Sustaining its reputation for diving into the cold water of any hot new media technology first, sports cable titan ESPN has just launched its own wireless network.

For monthly service fees ranging between $34.99-$224.99, as well as a $199 investment in a Sanyo MVP handset — available exclusively at Best Buy — subscribers not only get voice minutes, but real-time sports news, scores, statistics and alerts, as well as video clips, ringtones, wireless Internet access, etc.

ESPN officials believe the “mobile virtual network operator service” (MVDO) — so called because ESPN isn’t actually investing in expensive wireless network infrastructure, but merely leasing it from Sprint — is a natural extension of the cabler’s brand, given that its aud will take its technology, and its scores, fantasy-league stats and highlights pretty much anywhere it can get them.

“From a market perspective, sports fans tend to be earlier adopters of technology,” notes Manish Jha, senior VP, Mobile ESPN, noting the network’s affinity with gadget-loving, free-spending young-adult males. “And our TV network delivers an audience that’s 70% male, mostly 18-34.”

As for ESPN’s aggressive early adoption of the mobile technology — what other TV network has its own wireless service? — Jha says there’s plenty of precedent suggesting the business model will work.

ESPN’s wireless Internet site is tops in page views, he notes. And going back even further, ESPN.com launched way back in 1995 — when the Web was still the “World Wide What?” for many consumers — and it quickly became one of the most popular news destinations on the Net.

The sports network also has support from its corporate parent, Disney, which is currently prepping the launch of its own MVNO this summer.

ESPN — which used an expensive chunk of Super Bowl commercial time to help promo its mobile launch — won’t offer specifics as to how many subscribers it hopes to net right off the bat, or how much this venture will costs.

Jha — a 15-year ESPN veteran who started out at the network in ad sales — says the risks are well managed.

“We don’t have millions of dollars invested in infrastructure, and we’re not under pressure to grow the network as fast as we can,” he explains.

“The bulk of our cost will come from subscriber acquisition,” Jha adds. “Our goal in the first year is to ensure that we meet our expectations in terms of quality while modestly growing our subscriber base. As we get more comfortable with that, we’ll step on the gas and try to grow that subscriber base.”

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