The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that ESPN has talked with at least one wireless carrier about subsidizing customer data plans for their consumption of the company’s sports content. Think of it as lettuce growers paying the Olive Garden to keep the bottomless salads coming. ESPN doesn’t want its 45 million (and counting) digital users to stop watching on their iPads because they’re afraid of overage charges now that most major carriers are moving to capped data plans. “It makes it a worry-free, guilty pleasure,” says Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics. (ESPN declined to comment.)
As it stands, the Federal Communications Commission plays the role of nag in this scenario: It requires carriers to send alerts to customers as they approach their data limits. According to the Journal story, at least one carrier told ESPN that “significant numbers” of mobile users start to ration their consumption as they get close to their monthly caps. If ESPN were to foot the bill for watching SportsCenter on mobile devices, those users could keep on bingeing. Such an arrangement makes obvious sense for the carriers: They get paid for their service one way or another. The economics probably work for ESPN, too, though not right away.