I appreciate and generally endorse the App Store’s trend towards freemium.

Sadly, thanks in large part to the overt abuse of the IAP system employed by some of the App Store’s seedier members, that stance puts me in the distinct consumer minority. Sadder still, it no longer seems like such amoral behavior is limited to no-name startups and greedy shell companies; ESPN has officially entered the game.

See, the ESPN Radio app has undergone the transition to freemium. While that’s all perfectly standard, the worldwide leader in sports is clearly not the worldwide leader in customer appreciation. Indeed, the Disney subsidiary is pulling what amounts to the old bait-and-switch.

The original ESPN Radio was a paid app. For $2.99, users got a robust suite of local, state, and national broadcasts, from live audio feeds of popular ESPN programs to personalized content and play-by-play coverage of special events. A searchable, sortable database of thousands of audio clips was also included. In last year’s update to 3.0, ESPN even threw in over 40 professional podcasts.

Now, though, only those podcasts (and standard SportsCenter updates) remain.

That’s right: In the transition to version 4.0, ESPN has thrown their loyal paying customers under the proverbial team bus. To regain access to the programs and features they’ve already purchased, users will have to pony up another “one-time payment” of $4.99!

I sent ESPN a request for comment, ending my initial correspondence thus:

[L]ocking out previously paying customers by forcing them to spend another five dollars to enjoy the features they’ve already paid for is a questionable strategy. Any comment on why ESPN chose this clearly customer unfriendly direction?

To ESPN’s credit, I received an exceptionally prompt response. Unfortunately, it didn’t address any of the concerns I’d shared. Here’s what a company rep had to say copy and paste:

We appreciate your feedback and understand your concern. The new ESPN Radio application is more than a simple upgrade to the existing application.

The newest version of the ESPN Radio application is free to download and provides the ability to download podcasts and listen off-line. You are able to experience the full ESPN Radio application free for the first fourteen days. After your 14 day trial period ends, there is a $4.99 one-time fee to continue listening to LIVE streams and to use the new “My Stations” feature based on your sport preferences. If you choose not to pay $4.99 at the end of your trial, ALL ESPN podcasts and SportsCenter updates will continue to be available for free.

The full experience of the new ESPN Radio application includes:
• Custom Station or Playlist: search tens of thousands of audio clips by a specific topic and create a station or playlist of your favorite shows, teams, players and sports.
• Listen live: to over 35 ESPN Radio stations from around the country and play-by-play from some of your favorite college and professional sports teams including every game of the NBA Finals, World Series, College Bowl Games, Wimbledon, US Open Golf and more.
• Live Audio Functionality: Pause and rewind up to an hour of live audio.
• myESPN Personalization: Customize audio automatically pulled into the app based on your favorites.
• Top Searches: Popular searches and trends for easy one-click access to top audio.
• Recommendation Engine: Content suggestions based on your myESPN profile
• Alerts and Push Notifications: For MLB broadcasts, breaking news and more.

We think that once you try out all of the expanded features available in the ESPN Radio application you will discover the value of the new version. The current version of the ESPN Radio App (v3.0) will be discontinued on August 1, 2012.

While unnecessary (considering the boilerplate nonsense above), I responded with a more specific request for clarification. This post will be updated if anything substantive comes of it. In the meantime, I got to thinking about proper potential alternatives.

Now, it’s easy to lump all the blame onto ESPN, but at least a small part of the problem no doubt comes from Apple’s strict implementation of in-app purchases in general. In making ESPN Radio a free app, ESPN is able to offer the unlockable “Premium” version as an IAP. That said, there is — as far as I know — no way to build in a system whereby purchasers of the original app can gain access to that Premium version as part of the regular update process. In other words, to give established users access to the Premium version of the new app, ESPN would have to offer it as a separate app altogether. The old version could then be tied to that specific release, and upgrading users wouldn’t be slighted.

Why ESPN chose to consolidate its offerings instead of giving existing customers an honest means to upgrade is beyond me. The bad faith promoted by such a lockout dramatically outweighs any confusion that might arise from having two versions of ESPN Radio simultaneously available on the App Store. (Indeed, Big Fish Games goes this latter route on the regular, offering two versions of nearly every title in their library: one free with IAPs, one paid without. The apps are otherwise identical.)

My guess is that we’ll hear something from ESPN’s higher-ups soon enough. It takes a lot of chutzpah to willingly alienate your entire iOS user base, so hopefully something amenable is actually in the works.

Otherwise, ESPN might just be turning a home run into a strikeout.