The move marks ESPN Mobile's first foray into live programming--and may lead to additional live broadcasts of football and other sports on the service, depending on consumer response to the college games.
In addition to carrying the same games airing on ESPN and ESPN2, the wireless service will also air the same TV commercials shown during games, except where marketers have opted not to extend ads to the mobile platform. In those instances, ESPN will substitute house ads for third-party ones.
An ESPN spokesperson said that some advertisers may seek clearance from talent unions, including the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, before going ahead with mobile TV ads. Those unions are currently negotiating to expand their commercial contracts to cover Internet and mobile advertising. The spokesperson said ESPN chose college football for its live programming debut because of the sport's broad-based audience. "It's a really comprehensive set of games with great match-ups from all conferences," she said. The kick-off game will feature Florida State against Miami.
The games will only be available to ESPN Mobile users who subscribe to its premium Total Sports Package, for $25 a month beyond the cost of their mobile service plan. The ESPN Mobile plans range from $40 to $200, depending on the number of monthly minutes.
In addition to the college games, ESPN will also offer video highlights from Monday Night Football games on the mobile service during games, said the ESPN spokesperson.
After launching with much fanfare last December, ESPN Mobile has fallen short of expectations. Walt Disney Company CEO Robert Iger acknowledged during the company's quarterly earnings conference call earlier this month that sales for ESPN Mobile to date had been disappointing. But he said the company would "continue to exploit multiple business models in the mobile space to drive revenue and affinity among our core users."
A new wave of mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs, such as ESPN Mobile and Amp'd--aimed at affluent users and offering a range of entertainment content--have so far failed to gain significant numbers of new customers.
Linda Barrabee, program manager for U.S. wireless research at Yankee Group, said that live sports programming on ESPN Mobile, which runs on the Sprint PCS network, would help differentiate the service from competitors. "What they're trying to do is leverage some of their assets on the content side to promote the mobile user experience," she said.
Aside from live audio streaming of baseball games through Major League Baseball, there is little sports or any other kind of live programming for mobile phones today, she said. Only about 1 percent of wireless users subscribe to any data service that includes mobile video, according to Yankee Group research.
But sports is likely to be one of the categories that cell providers will use to generate interest in mobile video. Earlier this month, for instance, Cingular signed a deal with the Southeastern Conference to offer exclusive game highlights and other content from conference football and basketball teams, among others.
For its part, ESPN hopes that the live college games help to bring in new fans. "We hope it will help to drive sales in the right direction," said the ESPN spokesperson.