Twenty-two years ago, two fictional naval aviators uttered a phrase that became a part of the cultural lexicon: "I feel the need, the need for speed," [insert high-five here]. It was 1986—a time of massive growth for cable television. In fact, NCTA’s web site states that "from 1984-92, the industry spent more than $15 billion on the wiring of America, and billions more on program development."

A mere ten years later, the cable industry invested billions more to offer a new kind of distribution network that would give U.S. homes access to more news, entertainment and information than ever before.

We all remember those days—connections were not what they are today and quality content was sparse. But the competition between ISP providers was on, and speed became the key driver—a successful one. According to the Leichtman Research Group’s 2007 Broadband Internet Access & Services in the Home study, today 75 percent of users access the Internet with a broadband connection, and by the end of 2011 that number is expected to grow to 90 percent.

Speed has become ubiquitous among providers, which means looking for other ways to gain an edge is becoming more and more important. The reality is that people do not buy technology—they buy the benefits of technology. It has been our belief since back in 2001, when we launched ESPN Broadband, that content and brands are what consumers desire, and content and brands will continue to drive adoption of any medium of delivery. Therefore, the issue becomes less about speed and more about content. This need for differentiated content spurred the idea for ESPN360.com—a service created with our affiliates’ high-speed business objectives in mind, as well as the wants and desires of our fans.

 

Instead of going direct to consumers, we made a conscious decision to include and work with the ISPs to use the ESPN brand to drive their high speed business. ESPN360.com allows ISPs to give their customers access to more than 2,500 live sporting events each year. Users watch from their own virtual control rooms, with sports ranging from the mainstream (College Football, NBA Basketball, UEFA Soccer) to the not-so-mainstream (Beach Soccer, Polo, Mexican College Football, Swimming).

The mainstream sports can drive mass audiences online, while those "secondary" sports serve extremely passionate fan bases. Inclusion of these secondary sports harkens back to the days when ESPN launched. Those fans, knowing they can find their generally under-televised sport on ESPN360.com, will factor that into their decision when choosing a high-speed internet provider.

In addition to differentiated content and services, networks and technology companies need to work in tandem with cable operators to continue to ensure a high-quality experience.

Involving the local operator is key to the overall strategy as well, and ESPN works with ISPs on a local level to develop effective, customized marketing plans that meet our affiliates’ goals to acquire new subs, retain current subs and optimize usage of high-speed services. We also create strategic marketing plans that include customizable elements to meet an operator’s specific needs and goals.

In the 22 years since Maverick and Goose made their proclamation, we continue to deliver on users’ "need for speed." It’s now time to deliver on content if providers want to win in the battle for subscribers.

(David C. Preschlack is evp at Disney and ESPN Media Networks).

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