I don’t know how I missed that colossal flop but in 2006 ESPN released a black-and-red Sanyo flip phone with an ESPN logo above a 1-inch screen. It was called Mobile ESPN, the company’s ill-fated attempt at launching a sports-centric mobile service. Remember this was 1 year before the launch of the iPhone and Blackberry’s handsets were dominating the smartphone landscape. You’re probably scratching your head at how something this ridiculous can happened. I’m being polite here but someone wasn’t: “Your phone is the dumbest fucking idea I have ever heard.” That, according to the book These Guys Have All The Fun, was how Steve Jobs introduced himself to George Bodenheimer, then-President of ESPN, during a 2006 Disney board meeting (Jobs was on the Disney board).
For the special privileged of receiving score updates, launch GameCast, browse ESPN.com content, and a host of other features on the limited capability phone, customers had to fork over as much as $300 for the phone itself, and between $65 and $225 per month for content. It’s small change when you need your Sunday game score update in a couple minutes on a phone with basic functions (3G network or worse I assume).
According to this Bloomberg article, the project cost $150 million to develop, including a $30 million Super Bowl ad (see below), and attracted a grand total of 30,000 customers. ESPN scrapped it after seven months. As I don’t need to explain, it turned out to be a massive commercial failure. From the Wall-Street Journal:
Mobile ESPN’s model doesn’t appear to be winning over consumers. The start-up, which was launched in February, had signed up fewer than 10,000 customers through May, according to people familiar with the situation. Robert Iger, Disney’s chief executive, said on the company’s first-quarter earnings conference call that initial sales from Mobile ESPN were “lower than hoped.”
I’m glad ESPN quickly turned the page instead of throwing money at it. Still $150m is a lot of money. I understand a company needs to be innovative and sometimes has to experiment with different things, but this was simply not a good idea. I wonder if the person that came up with this great idea is still employed. For some reason, I have a feeling the phone is worth a lot of money today. It’s probably one of those collectibles. I searched on Ebay and I couldn’t find one.
Here’s ESPN’s 2006 Superbowl ad.