Disney Disconnects Mobile ESPN

NEW YORK Walt Disney will shutter its struggling Mobile ESPN operations later this year in favor of a business model that will see the sports network license its content to third-party wireless carriers.

Current customers will not be switched off before Dec. 31, the company said. Those who purchased the ESPN-branded phones will receive a full refund upon payment of their final bill.

Launched with much fanfare in February during Super Bowl XL, Mobile ESPN failed to stir up significant consumer interest. A mere 30,000 subscribers signed up this year, well below original expectations of 240,000 or more.

Havas’ Arnold in Boston handled the account, and a representative at the agency today declined comment. ESPN Mobile spent $40 million on domestic ads through the first half of 2006, the first year it had a dedicated media budget, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

“We are proud of the work we’ve done for Mobile ESPN and other ESPN properties like ESPN 360, ESPN Fantasy Football and ESPN.com. We look forward to a continued partnership with ESPN, as they’re one of the greatest brands in the world,” said an Arnold representative.

During Disney’s third-quarter earnings call in August, president and COO Bob Iger said the company’s investment in the mobile service was $150 million.

“Our MVNO effort created a tremendous wireless asset widely recognized for quality and innovation, and as a result we have been approached by well-entrenched carriers about a licensing model,” said Salil Mehta, evp, ESPN Enterprises, who added that the Bristol, Conn., network “remains committed to serving fans in the wireless arena.”

The decision to turn out the lights at Mobile ESPN will not have any effect on the separate Disney Mobile initiative, which was launched in June.

Mobile ESPN’s advertisers included Cisco, General Motors, Nike and Visa.

Arnold’s ads showcased a fantasy landscape in which athletes populate a city [Adweek Online, Feb. 1].

The first 60-second spot broke on during the Super Bowl XL telecast on Feb. 5. In the ad, a man exits a building and is oblivious to the world around him because he is engrossed in his cell phone. Around him, a cityscape explodes with football players, gymnasts, track stars, motocross cyclists, bowlers, skateboarders and other athletes. As fireworks and jet planes streak across the sky, screen copy reads, “Welcome to sports heaven.”