Mobile ESPN subscription service launched

NEW DELHI: It's in, it's happening, but will it deliver on the monies? Sports broadcaster ESPN Star Sports today announced the launch of Mobile ESPN, marking its entry into the mobile value added services (VAS) domain in India.

The sports TV major sought glory at a press conference here today as the first out of the door in this field with its service, which kicks off from 15 November.

The Indian mandarins of the company were, however, taken by surprise when asked how they could claim a projected success, when the same service had to be withdrawn in the US. Mobile ESPN was launched in February with a huge promotional campaign but was disbanded within six months. Though the service was viewed as a technological success, it never caught on with consumers, who were apparently unwilling to pay a $10 to $50 premium to get highlights, fantasy sports alerts and even live games on ESPN-branded phones.

ESPN India MD RC Venkateish explained, "There (in the US) the business model was different. However, we see huge potential in the mobile arena here as the leading sports broadcaster."

There was also some discomfort at the pitch over the rights issue --- whether information of cricket, for example, being provided by ESPN Mobile could clash with rights holders like the Board for Control of Cricket in India?

Sricharan Iyengar, ESPN India vice-president (sales and marketing) and head of emerging technologies, responded to a question on how the rights issue would affect them, saying that they were presently in a "rights-agnostic" situation.

Venkateish added that they were news service providers and "no on can black out news". He pointed out that most TV news channels were showing match reports anyway, without anyone coming in their way.

As of now, ESPN Mobile promises to launch a three-pipe outlet, with news, statistics, pre- and post-match analysis and what have you on all sports, from cricket to tennis to F1 to ice hockey through the mobile phone, Internet (through its website and TV.

Venkateish described the present TV-only scenario as the one-pipe outlet.

Sports fans will be delighted, said Iyengar, with the "360 degree" coverage of sports in all possible formats, voice, video, text, SMS and games.

Mobile ESPN services can be availed by dialling 505-ESPN (3776) on the phone or by sending an SMS to (ESPN) 3776, which will be the ESPN short code nationally. On entering the voice portal, consumers can select from a module comprising sections such as Welcome and user navigation; Cricket; Football; Sports center; and New Super Selector.

The price range is attractive, with monthly packages scaling between Rs 50 to RS 99, with the higher-end providing all possible services, including video.

Venkateish foresees a sea change in the media over the next five years, with the expected number of mobile phone users climbing by 30 per cent over the present 100 million, and ESPN has clearly pegged its business plan on the amazing growth in mobile connections across the country.

His punchline was, "We don't want work to come in the way of sports."

The company is working to optimise delivery through various service providers on the mobile networks, Iyengar said.

"The voice service has been specially developed for India," he said, adding, "this will give an hour-by-hour update.

The voice news service was more satisfactory, with crisp info on the latest sports events being packed into a short 1.20 minute take. "We are aware that the user is paying Rs 6 per minute for getting the news and have developed the programme to give him the maximum."

So far as a business plan was concerned, the two spoke of seamless integration and an advertising model being built in.

"Once we have built up a substantial subscriber base, we can also explore advertising on the service," Venkateish said.

The service, which is a presentation of the ESPN Star Sports joint venture, will be hyped on and off air and will see approximately Rs 400 million spent on marketing activities.

The service of ESPN mobile will start off with English, then Hindi (in the first quarter of 2007), to be followed by other Indian languages subsequently.

Gaming software is also being developed for subscribers of the service, according to Iyengar.

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