NTT Plays Ball
By John Alderman, Fri Apr 16 21:45:00 GMT 2004

A deal by NTT to set up a European soccer i-mode site underlines the growing importance of mobile sports content.

With loads of recent ads for phones with televisions appearing on subways, I often ask people in Japan under what kinds of situations would they actually pull out a mobile and watch video on it. After a long pause, they usually say sports events.

At first that surprised me, because I usually donít just hang around with a bunch of jocks; and the response is the same even with artistic studious women and men, young and old. Japan is a sports-hungry country, and the pronounced split between tough guys and creative types that you find in America doesnít seem to manifest as much in sports here. Maybe my experience is unique, but from outrageous rock stars to straight-laced housewives, nearly everyone I know here seems to be a fan.

"Did you catch World Cup fever?" I sometimes ask, a little ironically. "Yes, I did!" is the typical un-ironic response.

So the announcement from NTT that it would offer content from on i-mode, featuring interviews with players, video highlights, ringtones and screensavers, is part of a larger picture. Vodafoneís Beckham ads and associated Euro-sporting cool has been very effective here. Content from the Japanese site of the Union of European Football Associations, European soccer's governing body, is a small step forward if NTT doesnít want to give up all the cool to Vodafone.

A recent deal by DoCoMo to push i-mode in Greece during the Olympics (and concurrently release its 3G phones in Europe) shows that the company understands the importance of sport. Vodafone seems to be outpacing it though. Between its sponsorship of Manchester United and the recently acquired Japanese rights to the popular Italian football league, it has done a good job of branding itself here as the football loverís company.

In the world of television, sports deals are fought for tooth, nail and bank book. If videophones become as big as some are betting, acquiring sports rights for them will be as big a struggle. Getting it right is more than a game.