ESPN Set To Launch Local Apps for iPhone, iPod

ESPN’s foray into localized sports coverage is going mobile. The network has unveiled plans for iPhone and iPod touch applications for each of the five ESPN Local Websites: Dallas, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The ESPN Local apps are part of a wide range of digital initiatives announced at ESPN’s upfront last week, including a social-media–driven app called ESPN Passport.

“We’re very committed to serving fans on whatever screen they happen to be coming in on,” says John Zehr, SVP for digital media production, ESPN. “In the last couple of years, the proliferation of quality mobile devices makes [the mobile market] ripe for high-quality live video. We’re going to continue to invest more in it.”

ESPN Local
The ESPN Local apps will essentially be identical apps localized for each city, and all five will be free to download. Features will include top local news stories and game recaps, GPS-activated local weather updates, blog posts and tweets from local writers and contributors, an interactive scoreboard, local SportsCenter video and audio clips, stadium guides for local teams, team schedules, and the ability to text directly to local ESPN Radio affiliates. The apps, which were developed in conjunction with AirCast Mobile, use iPhone/iPad encapsulation and will deploy Apple’s HTTP Live Streaming and h.264 encoding.

“The fan that is going to log onto one of the local sites from their office first thing in the morning is going to have a thirst for that content when they go mobile,” says Zehr. “We’ve got mobile Web versions of the local sites right now, but they’re very light. This gives us the opportunity to provide a richer experience and take advantage of the handset capabilities.”

ESPNDallas.com will launch first, followed by Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York at one- to two-week intervals. For a demo of the ESPNDallas.com iPhone app, click here. According to Zehr, this is not only to create potential advertising opportunities during each launch but also to make adjustments based on user feedback.

“As with all of our iPhone apps, when you put them up in the App Store, you get reviews and ratings, and you start to react to that very quickly. Rather than launching them all at once and reacting all at once, we’ll try to use each market and make adjustments from there.”

In terms of video, the chief content will consist of three- to five-minute SportsCenter segments published throughout the day as well as highlights for local teams. The stadium guides will include comprehensive seating charts as well as information guides and restaurant guides in conjunction with Urbanspoon.com. Audio content will play a big role as well, given the success of the ESPN Radio app, which has been one of the most downloaded paid sports apps in the App Store since its launch last September.

“We certainly think audio content has applicability, which we learned with the [ESPN Radio] app. It’s perfect for somebody who’s on the treadmill at the gym,” says Zehr. “The local [radio] voices are really important as well. If you’re in one of those local markets, you can get that local feel that speaks to you as a fan.”

As of now, there are no immediate plans to roll out additional local sites, and, while ESPN Local apps for other mobile devices are on the radar, they are still very much in the development stages. At least for now, you’ll have to have an iPhone or iPad to get ESPN Local on the go.

“There’s nothing announced yet in terms of [launching ESPN Local on other mobile platforms], but we’re looking at it,” says Zehr. “With the success of Android, our overall application strategy is to make sure we’re not being too iPhone-focused. There are plans to bring the Radio app to Blackberry and ultimately to Android, so we’ll work in that same vein with the Local and Fantasy applications. You’ll see us bring all these experiences across all the handset platforms. That’s something we’re committed to over the next year. Certainly in Blackberry and Android and then Palm and some of the other, smaller categories, we’ll look at down the road. “

ESPN Passport
ESPN Passport is a geo-location scrapbook-like app that allows fans to commemorate their at-the-game experiences and share them with friends via social-media networks like Facebook. Fans can keep a record of games attended, upload photos, and provide feedback on the overall game experience. The app is scheduled to launch in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in June.

“You can also put in some points about what your experience was like. How was the food? What happened in the game? All that then gets shared amongst everyone who is there. It’s almost like a mini social network at the event that forms and ends with the event,” says Zehr. “We then have the ability to curate that content and make it part of our game coverage on ESPN.com.”

No video capabilities are currently incorporated into ESPN Passport, but he is hopeful that video will eventually be added. “We obviously don’t want to get fans in trouble with rights-holding broadcasters. So we’re sort of treading lightly in that respect. We’ll look at it as it goes along, and we’ll see what consumer demand is.

“In this increasingly fragmented media world,” he continues, “live events are actually getting bigger. Mobile is becoming an amplifier. It’s not a cannibalizer in any way. It’s getting more people engaged, which is good for us on every level.”

ESPN3.com Mobile?
There are currently no official plans to bring ESPN’s greatest streaming-video asset — ESPN3.com — to mobile devices. According to Zehr, ESPN3.com will not go mobile until the company can ensure reliable user authentication, a proper business model, and, most important, the highest possible quality of video stream. In addition, the current incarnation of ESPN3.com runs on an Adobe Flash-enabled video player, which does not run on Apple devices like the iPhone and iPad.

“ESPN3.com on the PC now is leveraging Flash technology. So we’re going to have to look at how we encode and distribute things differently [for the iPhone],” he says. “We’re obviously looking at [making ESPN3.com available on mobile devices] and trying to figure out how to do it. I expect that we will absolutely bring [ESPN3.com] to more and more screens; it’s just a matter of time. But there is definitely a lot of work involved.”

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