What Comes First, Users or Business Model?

Bloomberg Businessweek had an interesting article on ESPN in the September 3 edition. In it the WatchESPN app and ESPN’s mobile strategy was discussed. WatchESPN allows cable subscribers to watch ESPN programs at their leisure, including sporting events. For ESPN, though, many of the programs aren’t showing ads yet since those rights weren’t sold with the television rights. As the article says:

In other words, ESPN has invested in creating content for a platform before business exists to support it. John Kosner, executive vice president for digital and print media, says, ‘We weren’t afraid of cannibalizing our [television] business if the fan liked it … even though the ad-serving technology just isn’t ready yet. We’re not afraid to be ahead of the market. You win by delivering what fans want, and then that becomes a fantastic advertising proposition and a great business.’

Apparently the fans don’t like WatchESPN. When I looked this weekend the app had a two-star rating. Many of the reviews were primarily business model stuff, like let me buy a subscription. I get the sense that ESPN could be the first to move in this direction, if their always cannibalizing street cred is real.

While there is tons of talk of HBO and Game of Thrones program in the tech press, it is ESPN and live sports that is the last thing keeping people tethered to cable. Luckily for me, the sport I prefer (baseball) and the team I follow (Cleveland Indians) are available on MLB.tv. Playoffs are a problem, of course, but the Indians haven’t been good enough lately to have to worry about that.

Another thing that I found interesting about this quote is that ESPN specifically chose to release an app before securing a business model. This seems like a catch-22 proposition. For something that hasn’t been available before, finding out whether people will use it and what they are doing with it is important. Without knowing that information, it is hard to figure out what and how to charge. Without charging, though, we don’t know if there is a business at all and thus makes all those users a moot point. Seems like a classic chicken and egg problem.