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Mobile ESPN returns partnered with Verizon Wireless services

By Bruce Meyerson The Associated Press

NEW YORK – The jockeying to bring the most popular names from TV and the Web to cell phones produced another exclusive deal yesterday with Verizon Wireless nabbing a multiyear agreement to offer ESPN’s flashy feed of sports scores, newscasts and video highlights on the tiny screen.

The plan to revive Mobile ESPN – initially born as a full-blown cell phone company competing with big players like Verizon before ESPN pulled the plug late last year – comes on the heels of similar partnerships adding a mobile outlet to the hottest Web properties.

The most publicized deal came a month ago as Apple Inc. forged an exclusive arrangement with AT’T Inc.’s Cingular Wireless for the carrier to offer iPhone, the anxiously-awaited cellular manifestation of Apple’s popular iPod music player and iTunes online music store.

Verizon Wireless notched deals in November to become the sole U.S. mobile portal for two top video-sharing sites, Google Inc.’s YouTube and On the social networking side, News Corp.’s MySpace has granted limited exclusivity to AT’T’s Cingular in the United States and to Vodafone Group PLC overseas.

Exclusive arrangements don’t necessarily mean that customers of other wireless companies are out of luck. Regardless of the carrier, it’s still possible to access most of these services through the mobile Web browser that’s now installed on nearly every cell phone. ESPN, for example, will still offer mobile access to some of its content through Web links featured by numerous wireless providers.

But since the most widely used technology for adapting Web pages to mobile phones remains highly imperfect, the recent partnerships are designed to provide much smoother controls and presentation customized to the constraints of a handset’s small screen and cramped buttons.

The partners have somewhat different motivations: The Web players are simply trying to parlay their success into new revenue and protect their popularity against copycats by providing access in a medium that younger consumers hold dear.

For cell carriers, the deals provide a way to differentiate themselves at a time when revenue from phone calls is shrinking. All of the national providers have invested billions to upgrade their wireless networks, which they are using to generate new revenue by selling multimedia content from music to video and plain old Web surfing.

The Mobile ESPN service, expected to launch in the coming months, is to be included free as part of the $15 a month or $3 a day charge for V Cast’s assorted multimedia offerings.

The Verizon relationship is the first example of the new strategy that ESPN executives promised last September in announcing they were pulling the plug on Mobile ESPN as a standalone cell phone company featuring its own handsets, calling plans, customer service and monthly phone bills.

That ambitious venture, launched in late 2005 by parent company Walt Disney Co., is believed to have signed up fewer than 30,000 customers despite drawing positive reviews for the sophisticated multimedia application that ESPN created to deliver its popular TV and Web content within the cramped constraints of a cell phone.

By contrast, Verizon Wireless has 59 million subscribers, a third of whom have phones compatible with V Cast.

The companies declined to disclose the financial terms or exact length of the deal, though one executive noted that a multiyear arrangement is lengthier than a typical wireless content agreement.

The Mobile ESPN application will be adapted to all phones compatible with V Cast, starting with perhaps a couple of models at the outset, the executive said.

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