Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN sports television network is launching its own brand of mobile telephone service in a deal with Sprint Corp., catering to sports fans with news and game highlights on a next-generation network, the companies said Wednesday.
Sprint effectively will rent space on its network to ESPN, which would become a pioneer among U.S. media companies aiming to take their wares to the smallest screen.
Disney also is exploring a network branded with the company name, a spokeswoman said.
ESPN Mobile is set to start U.S. service in the second half of 2005 -- with a national roll-out toward the end of the year or the beginning of 2006 -- with streaming sports videos, plus graphics and news, said John Skipper, ESPN's chief of new media.
The company was preparing a competitively priced service with unique handsets aimed at a relatively small group of avid fans -- between 100,000 and 2.7 million fans currently access ESPN wirelessly through the Internet and streaming-score types of services.
"When you see it across an airplane aisle, or you see it across a restaurant, you can identify it as an ESPN phone," he said. But it is "unlikely it will be quite as wacky as a football phone, because people are still using this phone as their primary voice phone."
Subscribers to the service would be able to customize handsets along the lines of services in Asia and Europe -- such as a scroll of favorite-team scores, or playing videos of recent home-team goals before dialing. ESPN even had considered streaming its cable network, although it faced many rights and licensing issues.
Sprint, which will run the phone network while ESPN handles billing and sports content, said the link with Disney was another way to attract consumers to new high-end phones with Internet capabilities and to keep them once they switched.
Sprint's newest network will offer video roughly comparable to television, albeit on small screens.
"We believe ESPN's involvement in wireless will help stimulate even further consumer demand for high-speed data services," said Len Lauer, Sprint president and chief operating officer.
Sprint already rents network space to Qwest Communications International Inc. and youth-oriented Virgin Mobile USA, a joint venture between Sprint and Richard Branson's Virgin, and AT&T Corp. also plans to use Sprint's network to provide mobile services to its business customers.
ESPN, which Disney considers its second-most important brand after the company name, has already led the film, television and theme park company into some technological forays, such as downloadable sports highlights for the Web with TV-style clarity.
"Our goal is to extend our leadership and expertise in the two-screen environment, the television and computer, to a third screen that is becoming increasingly important to sports fans -- the wireless device," said George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN Inc. and ABC Sports.
Disney Internet Group spokeswoman Kim Kerscher said "good progress" had been made on a Disney-branded phone, but the company still was evaluating the economics.