"We're having extraordinary growth on ESPN.com's NFL pages, but we're also seeing extraordinary usage with mobile devices as well," said Ed Erhardt, president-ESPN ABC Sports customer marketing and sales, calling mobile "a big part of the future as it relates to how fans are going to consume sports."
ESPN declined to confirm the numbers, but an executive briefed on the data said that for one 24-hour period, ESPN's wireless NFL section, with 4.9 million visits, topped the PC NFL section's 4.5 million visits.
Mr. Erhardt said fans multitask while watching football on the big screen, often plugging in wirelessly to a laptop or checking their phones for fantasy-league information, scores of other games, and statistics and trivia. "It provides a new kind of experience and a new way to interact with the game," he said.
ESPN did confirm there were three days when its mobile NFL content outdrew its PC NFL content.
Mark Donovan, senior analyst at M:Metrics, a mobile-measurement firm, said certain time-based activities are just more convenient on the phone. While the PC is not going away, "increasingly we see people using the mobile phone because it's convenient," Mr. Donovan said. He added that sports content has the potential to be a mobile-web bellwether, if not one of the killer applications, along with search and weather.
M:Metrics late last year said European soccer was the killer application for mobile media. During the past two years, the mobile audience looking up sports information on mobile devices increased significantly around major events. For example, when the FA Premier League started in mid-August 2006, the number of users accessing sports information jumped to 4.1 million from 3.6 million the month before play began. Audience size fluctuated throughout the season, hitting 4.7 million in April 2006 when Chelsea was poised to win its second title in the FA Premier League. M:Metrics is considering similar studies in the U.S. around this year's Super Bowl and other major sports events.
In the future, when mobile-connection speeds are faster, Mr. Erhardt predicts there will be more interest in viewing live games on phones. ESPN has broadcasted some college games on Verizon phones using the MediaFlo mobile-broadcast service. And he said he believes 2008 will be the year ESPN offers marketers three screens: TV, PC and mobile.
About 32 million people in the U.S. access the mobile web on a monthly basis, and ESPN has 9 million of them, Mr. Erhardt said. "We're seeing better than 200% growth year over year for our mobile usage," he said, although it's off a lower base. By comparison, ESPN.com's NFL content is up an average of 36% year over year, with 47.3 million page views, or 41% of all traffic, coming in the 24 hours beginning Mondays at noon. Game-time NFL content is up 43%, and fantasy football up 48%, the network said. According to ComScore, ESPN had 22.2 million unique visitors in November.
The gains in mobile come after ESPN folded its ESPN Mobile venture. The mobile virtual network operator ran on the Sprint network and came with a special phone designed for sports enthusiasts. One ad success from the phone that Mr. Erhardt suggested could be duplicated on the mobile web was the Coors Answer Guy, who would answer fans' mobile trivia questions on demand.
According to M:Metrics, 43.8% of those accessing sports information on a phone visit ESPN. Fox Sports draws 19.2%, followed by the NFL's mobile website with 18.6% and CBS Sportsline at 11.4%.