That didn't stop ESPN from attempting another pass. By the next spring, the Disney-owned sports network had parlayed the lessons from its failed experience into a new service on Verizon Wireless' VCast, offering video highlights and sports and fantasy-team updates. Then one Sunday in October 2007, and ESPN had what may be seen as a watershed moment in mobile history: For the first time, it had more visits to the NFL content on its mobile-phone site than it did to the same area on its PC website.
"It bodes very, very well for the future" of mobile, says Michael Gartenberg, VP-research director at Jupiter Research.
It also bodes very well for ESPN. Eric Johnson, exec VP-multimedia sales, says the risks ESPN took paid off. "We learned ... how [consumers] interact with the phone."
Marketers are coming to realize ESPN's mobile opportunity. For the Summer Olympics, one major bank is betting sports fans will want their information on mobile phones. The bank, which ESPN declines to identify, has shifted 40% of its ESPN digital buy for the Olympics to mobile.
Keeping ahead of the game has been ESPN's signature play through the evolution of media, from its traditional TV base to print to its newer digital efforts, which netted 19.1 million unique visitors in December, according to Nielsen Online.
For the Masters tournament in April, Mr. Johnson says, ESPN will offer "live look-ins" on Thursdays and Fridays through ESPN.com; ESPN360.com offers live sports programming on the web. For the TV upfront market, he says he expects a bevy of original ESPN shows online, including documentaries.