ESPN—yes, the U.S. cable sports network—once offered a mobile phone plan.

In late 2005, the company launched Mobile ESPN, a sports-centric service delivered directly from the Bristol, Connecticut-based company to devices such as the Samsung ACE, via ESPN’s capacity as a mobile virtual network operator using extra capacity from Sprint 1. This expensive package—it could cost as much as $225 per month—also included voice and data alongside access to push notifications (e.g., about game scores) and live event coverage from ESPN, all of it a true novelty on handsets in the mid-2000s.2

Steve Jobs infamously called Mobile ESPN “the dumbest fucking idea I ever heard.” It shut down in late 2006, right before the original iPhone was unveiled in January 2007. Neat narrative, right?

Mobile ESPN was the future after all

But even though smartphones obviated the immediate utility of anything resembling the Mobile ESPN paradigm—wherein the “intelligence” is all server-side and the device is essentially just a dumb terminal, rather than the reverse, as seen with the iPhone in particular as well with the current trend toward on-device “AI” 3—the infrastructure built in 2005-2006 helped ESPN launch one of the most used and influential mobile apps. Moreover, Mobile ESPN looks in retrospect like a proto-streaming service—a hedge against the possible unfurling of the cable/satellite TV bundle, of which ESPN has long been the star and the most expensive single component.

Mobile ESPN revealed not only ESPN’s urge to be at the technical forefront (even with technology that wasn’t economically practical), but also the anxiety the company felt about the almost too-good-to-be-true economics of cable/satellite TV. It saw mobile phones as a potential threat to that business, and Mobile ESPN was its beachhead. To recap, cable/satellite TV is the perfect business model:

  • If you’re a content maker like ESPN, providers such as Comcast and Charter pay you for the right to carry your channel.
  • You can also run ads on your channel!

Streaming may seem so technologically modern in comparison, but it’s nowhere near as lucrative as pay TV—with these dual income streams—was at its peak. Disney+, Max, and Peacock all lose money or barely eke our a profit each quarter. ESPN even now as a cable/satellite-only channel 4 is still very profitable, but cord-cutting (i.e., the ditching of pay TV in favor of streaming services) has diminished both its reach and its bargaining clout. The New York Times recently documented how much ESPN would have to charge if it went “direct to consumer,” i.e., sold its main channel as a standalone streaming service rather than requiring people to purchase a pay TV bundle:

Estimates vary widely, but if ESPN offered its cable channels à la carte, it would most likely have to charge an astonishingly high fee for the streaming service, perhaps $40 or $50 per month, just to maintain its current revenue.

$50!!! Complaining about the high costs of pay-TV packages is practically an American tradition, but paying that much for one channel would be unheard of, not to mention insulting when even at this late date a basic cable bundle that includes ESPN and many other channels can still be had for less than $100.

Yet, according to Disney CEO Bob Iger, the standalone ESPN is a matter of when, not if. To me, the streaming ESPN feels like Mobile ESPN redux because it’ll be:

  • Way too costly for the average consumer.
  • Clunky and unreliable, if the Disney+ and Hulu interfaces are anything to go by.
  • Likely to be superseded by some kind of bundle or streaming-native service, in the same way the iPhone was sort of a “bundle” or cheap apps in its early years, one that easily outstripped the dumb phones that Mobile ESPN was built for.
  • Still fundamentally valuable, in that it’s delivering in-demand “content,” in this case, live sports.

Enter the gambler

At the same time that it’s trying to become a streaming service, ESPN is also taking on the characteristics of social media. It recently licensed its name to Penn Entertainment, a gambling company that can now operate sports books under the ESPN brand. In a previous post, I likened the major social media platforms to gambling, because they’re both addictive and unlikely to provide consistent return for your effort—so you should see your posting efforts as charity rather than labor, and not get too invested in them, in the same way that you’re better off just tossing a relatively few coins into slots at a casino instead of going (literally) all-in trying to change your life there.

Now ESPN will be essentially a vertically integrated gambling operation, offering coverage of sporting events alongside branded sports books and commentary that highlights betting lines, available betting services, and so on. Writing for The Atlantic, Amanda Mull sums up how complete the victory is for the sports gambling complex over the once-gambling averse North American sports leagues and the media that cover them, all of whom need this money to make up for the decline of cable/satellite and the unsuitability of streaming revenue as a replacement:

Although ESPN in particular is still enormously profitable—to the tune of billions of dollars a year—the decline of cable has made continued growth look difficult, and growth is what shareholders want. No matter how creatively you do the math, streaming subscriptions are unlikely to make up the difference. Media executives go where the money is, and right now, the biggest piles of new money are available to those who encourage viewers to gamble. If even ESPN can’t hold out, and apparently has no desire to try, then no one can.

Sports gambling was social media before “the Facebook” was a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, in that it instilled both FOMO and compulsive behavior, and this integration of ESPN with Penn only exacerbates this characteristic of it by making any consumption of sports content going forward a potentially anxiety-ridden, Web 2.0-esque experience in having to contribute your own part—you can no longer just passively watch, you have to get in on the literal action by betting.

Just as social media can be understood as the replacement of paid newspaper and magazine subscriptions with free ad-supported and engagement-driven websites, the new gambling-centric ESPN can be seen as the replacement of the pay-TV package with tons of gambling cash, both directly from casino operators and indirectly from the individuals who’ll feel the need to gamble.

It’s like social media, in that it makes us feel like we’re workers or even entrepreneurs on the verge of riches, when in reality we’ve become lost in non-remunerative addiction. The only way to win is not to play; you have to have the courage to pull an Elaine Benes in “The Bizarro Jerry” and say:

I can’t spend the rest of my life coming into this stinking apartment [my note: replace with website, channel, app, whatever] every ten minutes to pore over the excruciating minutiae of every single daily event!

  1. Nothing makes me feel older than saying that ESPN used to operate a MVNO from a carrier that no longer exists, with Sprint having been absorbed into T-Mobile. ↩︎

  2. In 2006, whirl away from home at Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments, I checked sports scores on my Motorola RAZR with a weird Java app that was costly if I used it for more than a few minutes. ↩︎

  3. I put “AI” into quotes because I think it’s a misnomer that assigns too much agency to the rote practice of applied statistics. ↩︎

  4. ESPN+ is a streaming service, but it has a much smaller catalogue of high/profile events that ESPN proper. ↩︎