Cellular companies find niche in sports marketing

Sprint joins with NFL, NASCAR to give fans update and analysis


Cell phones may be the next frontier in sports media.

And you thought they existed only so that your spouse could tell you to stop at the grocery on the way home.

Fans have been able to check scores and statistics on their phones for years, but companies such as Sprint Nextel are taking that notion to another realm in partnership with the NFL, NASCAR and ESPN.

Sprint signed a five-year, $600 million sponsorship deal with the NFL this summer and recently announced its "NFL Mobile" package. For $5.99 a month, Sprint customers can access game highlights, fantasy football analysis and programs from the NFL Network. Sprint also provides NASCAR content to its customers as part of its sponsorship deal with the auto-racing circuit.

ESPN, meanwhile, plans to launch its own cell service, ESPN Mobile, for the approaching holiday season. Customers will be able to get updates on their favorite teams and manage their ESPN fantasy teams through black and red phones bearing the network's logo. ESPN will use Sprint's network to distribute its content. "Certainly, I think cell phones are going to become launching pads for people for all kinds of things," said Steve Gaffney, director of sports marketing for Sprint.

"And sports is at the core of our marketing plans," Gaffney added.

Such content - video or data - remains a small part (about 7 percent) of the way wireless phone companies make money. But Sprint, with its large NFL and NASCAR deals, is betting that will change.

"I think they understand that part of the way to recoup their investments is to get people to use their cell phones for more than just voice," said Linda Barrabee, an analyst for the Yankee Group, a Boston-based financial consultant.

The major cell companies already deliver broadcast and video content over their phones.

Sprint and Cingular offer a live broadcast service called MobiTV that features programming from MSNBC and Fox Sports, among others.

Sprint and Verizon Wireless also offer on-demand video clips from news and entertainment programs. Verizon's V-Cast also features sports content including clips of post-game interviews, highlights and fantasy updates.

Industry experts estimate that about 500,000 Americans subscribe to such services, but they see several impediments to wider use.

The screen surface is small, and at 10 to 15 frames a second, images appear about half as fast as on regular television, creating a stilted effect.

That problem may soon vanish, however. Qualcomm has already demonstrated a service called MediaFlo that produces television at regular speed on cell phones. Sprint plans to roll out new phones that will show video at speeds near those on broadcast television.

Cell companies must also lower prices for phones that can handle video (they were costing $250 and higher but have recently dropped to less than $100) and educate potential buyers about the new entertainment products, Barrabee said.

The NFL kept a close eye on the changes in cell phones. League officials were excited not only about the millions in sponsorship dollars available from companies like Sprint but also about spreading league content to new forums.

The NFL sits in the enviable position of owning a product everyone wants. That means the league can piggyback onto technological trends without having to invest in creating new products.

"Where it's going, nobody knows, but you'd have to have your head in the sand to not understand that media is being consumed in different ways in this country," said Brian Rolapp, the league's director of new media.

It's not clear whether the NFL wants its games broadcast widely over cell phones. For now, league officials view phones more as vessels for fans to check highlights and stats during short gaps in their days.

Under the league's next television deal, which lasts through 2011, games carried on Fox, CBS and NBC will not be broadcast on cell phones. ESPN will be allowed to broadcast Monday Night games on ESPNMobile under its deal.

The lack of live games is fine with Sprint. "It's like snack food," Gaffney said. "We want to provide the best little bits and pieces, but if you want the main course, you go home and watch the game on TV."

Barrabee agreed, saying, "People aren't going to turn their phones on and watch an hour at a time."

Gaffney said Sprint has cast its lot with the NFL and NASCAR because the leagues deliver the most consistently high ratings in sports and because customers of each show a propensity to buy sponsoring products.

"You're talking about two of the largest fan bases and probably the most rabid fan bases in the United States," he said.

Barrabee said it's too early to know if the costly NFL deal will pay off for Sprint: "It's going to be about how well they execute and get consumers interested in buying their new products," she said."But it's definitely a good brand to associate with."


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