Interview: Steve Wadsworth, President, Walt Disney Interactive: Disney MVNO Post ESPN


[By Staci D. Kramer] Over the past few months I’ve spoken with Steve Wadsworth, president, Walt Disney Interactive, about Disney’s MVNO plans, most recently at spring CTIA when the details for family MVNO Disney Mobile were announced and he stressed a long-term commitment. Throughout, Mobile ESPN has been omnipresent even though Wadsworth does not have a direct role in decision making at ESPN. Mobile ESPN was first, and while Wadsworth would never say so to me, for some at Disney the sports MVNO’s launch offered a kind of road map of where not to go. Don’t overprice handsets, keep calling plans competitive, make sure the marketing is on target, start outside the big-box retailers. Then again, although Disney’s investment in the two MVNOs — some $150 million, so far — links them in analysts’ minds, they have been distinct all along.
In the wake of Mobile ESPN’s demise as an MVNO, Wadsworth took some time late Friday to discuss the commitment to Disney Mobile, that MVNO’s progress, and to answer a few of my questions about Mobile ESPN.
On reassuring partners and consumers post-Mobile ESPN: “I think we just continue to demonstrate our commitment and focus on building a business. … We’re not honestly hearing that kind of feedback of concern from those partners. On the consumer side, I think actually the consumers don’t even make a connection. … The target demos are parents, primarily moms and their kids. From a marketing perspective, we’re reaching totally different people. … ”
On the timing: When I asked if Mobile ESPN would still be up and running if Disney’s fiscal year wasn’t ending, Wadsworth replied: “I don’t think so. I was not the guy making any decisions around that; obviously we work close with those guys and I’ve been involved in a lot of it but the decision was made on … an application and content perspective to go to a broader approach. I don’t think that (timing) had anything to do with it.”
On the spending: Wadsworth wouldn’t elaborate beyond reported amounts. (The company doesn’t break out the spending on the two MVNOs although that should become a little clearer in a few weeks if Disney takes a change for the year as expected.) The amount Disney invests will be lower. Wadsworth: “I think that’s fairly obvious; back to the breakout question, it’s not something we’ve gotten into but I think it’s pretty clear that the investment profile would change.”
On a possible backlash: An industry insider I spoke to as the Mobile ESPN news started to hit predicted a backlash for mobile content and MVNOs. Wadsworth disagrees: “I think it’s very specific (to Mobile ESPN). For sure, I don’t think it’s any implication on the mobile content business. In fact, this is probably going to help mobile content because of the ESPN application. It’s a great application and that’s always been the feedback; it’s a great product. … For MVNOs, no, I think it’s a very specific situation where a decision was made, hey, there’s a better opportunity to go about a better way.”
On Disney Mobile: The service soft-launched in June with online-only sales. They now have some kiosks in malls and are rolling out in independent wireless chains. Wadsworth: “In the last 8-10 weeks, we’ve been rolling out these retail channels. We’re continuing to expand, working with master agents … It’s a building thing right now and what we’re seeing is building excitement through these retailers.” No comment on subscriber numbers.
On commitment: At CTIA, Wadsworth stressed that it would be several years before the MVNO investment might pay off. The tune remains the same. Wadsworth: “I think there remains the same level of commitment and the time horizon is the same. As I said back then … the best gauge of success is going to be a few years out and I think we all feel that way. Obviously, along the way there are milestones … We will know in three years the level and extent of that success.” He said it could be sooner.
On Disney CEO Bob Iger’s support: Asked he feels assured of support from Bob Iger, Wadsworth replied: “He’s bullish about this. He’s said to investors he’s bullish about Disney Mobile.”

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