ESPN Goes 3-D With New Network

ESPN is getting ready to add an extra dimension to its sports coverage, as the cable giant has announced plans to launch a standalone 3-D TV network.

ESPN 3-D will debut before the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which kicks off June 11 with a match between host nation South Africa and fellow Group A squad Mexico. Bristol is currently looking to drum up support for the new venture from its affiliates, and the network will occupy its own distinct channel space.

A spokesperson for ESPN said ESPN 3-D would lay fallow when not broadcasting a live and/or tape-delayed event. While technical specs were in short supply Tuesday, it is likely that operators will distribute the network via switched-digital video, a process that allows distributors to send a signal from the head-end only when a user “requests” a given channel, via her digital set-top box.

Viewers eager to ride the 3-D wave will need to purchase a special television set that enables that sort of enhanced viewing. And yes, you’ll still need to wear your 3-D glasses to appreciate the effect.

In its first year of operations, the new network will feature a minimum of 85 live sporting events. Along with 25 World Cup matches, other events to be produced in 3-D include ESPN’s NCAA basketball and football coverage, including the BCS National Championship Game set to kick off on Jan. 10, 2011.

Additional 3-D events will be announced as the initiative gets closer to launch.

“ESPN’s commitment to 3-D is a win for fans and our business partners,” said George Bodenheimer, co-chairman, Disney Media Networks, and president, ESPN and ABC Sports, by way of announcing the venture. “ESPN 3-D marries great content with new technology to enhance the fan’s viewing experience and puts ESPN at the forefront of the next big advance for TV viewing.”

ESPN has been kicking the tires on 3-D TV for the last two years. On Sept. 12, 2009, the sports net produced the USC-Oklahoma State nail-biter in 3-D, screening the game in select theaters and to a crowd of 6,000 students in the Trojans’ on-campus Galen Center facility.

Bristol is not the only network group looking to improve TV’s depth perception. Discovery Communications and partners Sony and Imax are getting set to announce a joint 3-D TV venture at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas later this afternoon. Consumers will get their first look at Discovery’s 3D effort in 2011.

For its part, ESPN sees 3-D as a game-changer, much like HD has been since its commercial introduction in 1998. “This will be a meaningful step to drive adoption of 3D television sets and afford opportunities for our affiliates to create value through new product offerings, and our advertisers, who want fresh sponsorship opportunities,” said Sean Bratches, ESPN executive vp of sales and marketing.

Should 3-D TV take off, expect marketers to begin tailoring their pitches in the advanced format. Widespread adoption will depend on consumers’ willingness to invest even more cash in their home entertainment centers, as many Americans are still catching up to the HD standard.

According to Leichtman Research, 46 percent of Americans now own at least one hi-def set. Adoption is being spurred by decreasing prices; per Leichtman data, among first-year HDTV owners, the mean purchase price of a set was about $870––35 percent less than the price paid by new HDTV owners a year ago.