Interview: Salil Mehta, EVP, ESPN Enterprises


imageIt’s a cliche, to be sure, but looking at Mobile ESPN, it’s hard not to think what a difference a year makes. This time last year, Mobile ESPN was coming off a Super Bowl launch that turned out to be more of a thud than a boost for Disney’s first — and quickly defunct — MVNO. Fast forward and ESPN’s big mobile news at the Disney investors meeting isn’t the glowing success of that project, but the salvaging of Mobile ESPN the application from the ashes (one of the best mobile apps I’ve ever used) and a mobile network for someone else’s service. As EVP-ESPN Enterprises, Salil Mehta oversees ESPN’s mobile strategy; today he spent some time in the corporate spotlight when he announced the deals with Verizon for licensing of the application and with Qualcomm for ESPN Mobile TV. He then spent some time with me on the phone, talking about the reasons for making an exclusive licensing deal with Verizon, the programming for ESPN Mobile TV, the lessons from Mobile ESPN, and the network’s mobile strategy in general. Some excerpts:
On exclusivity: Verizon has the U.S. exclusive for Mobile ESPN; the company and will be licensing it outside the U.S., Mehta said. Why exclusive? In essence, ESPN wants to be in front of consumers and realizes the best way is to have one carrier with a massive built-in base. Mehta: “We’re using that engine to really push the story.” He said the application is so different and so much better, it’s a challenge to explain it to consumers. Also, The available pool of users will be much wider; Mehta expects Mobile ESPN to be offered on all V Cast-capable handsets within several months. Not unlike cable, ESPN will get a fee for each subscriber who adds the service.
Why Verizon? Mehta said he talked to all of them — “we actually have good relationships with all of them” — and Verizon “got it, understood it, understood the value of it and have pledged considerable support in sales, marketing and distribution to help us tell that story.” One thing he liked was Verizon’s retail ubiquity. the key to this strategy is we give great content to Verizon and Verizon does a great job of promoting the content that it has.”
Timeline: Mehta says launch plans are being discussed but it’s a matter of months.
ESPN Mobile TV: Mehta promises the same type of sports news and information — as well as live games — but no details for now. ESPN has been accumulating various wireless rights as it signs deals.
Broader strategy: Mehta stresses that the deals announced today are only part of a broader strategy and that these agreements round out that strategy. While Mobile ESPN will be exclusive to Verizon, ESPN’s WAP site continues to be available to 35 million customers across carriers. It also already offers video through V Cast, Sprint, MobiTV. … It’s a great portfolio and, we think, an important part of our digital strategy.”
International plans: Mehta hopes to pitch Mobile ESPN and ESPN Mobile TV beyond the U.S.
Big elephant in the room: ESPN clearly is moving on but Mobile ESPN the MVNO hovers in the background, at least for outsiders. What did ESPN learn from the failed MVNO? “We learned a lot. The number one thing that we learned was just how to produce content, the best content and the best software for fans.” He said they also learned a lot about what fans do on their cell phones. I think the main thing we walked away with was how to make the best content available on the cell phone.” I suggested they learned to let someone else sell handsets and set up infrastructure. Mehta: “The reality is we’re focusing on what it is that we think we do best.”

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