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ESPN Reasserting Commitment to Baseball through Revamped Baseball Tonight

The network plans to use a new SportsCenter segment and increased travel to keep its flagship baseball show fresh in its 30th season.

Mike Piellucci

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Photo Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Now in his 27th year at ESPN, Karl Ravech proudly characterizes himself as a company man. 25 of those have been spent as the primary studio host of Baseball Tonight – plenty long enough to qualify him as a baseball man, too. For all intents and purposes, he is the public face of America’s Pastime on the country’s most powerful sports network. And, recently, he has been something of a punching bag for fans who worry about the sport’s place at the Worldwide Leader.

“We, as a network, have been criticized as an NFL network or an NBA network and, ‘You’re not a baseball network,” he says. “That’s the one thing that I’ve heard more than anything… ‘You guys don’t do it anymore.’”

Ravech sees their point. “I think that the last couple of years, we’ve kind of gotten a little bit away from having baseball coverage,” he acknowledges. He’s also confident that 2019 will be the year that outside concerns about the sport’s importance to ESPN are put to bed.

READ MORE: Here to Stay: Generation Z’s Impact On Sports Content Strategy

“There’s a renewed zest to have a greater baseball presence,” he says. “I think this is a direct response to that [criticism.]”

The plan to get there runs through Baseball Tonight, the network’s flagship baseball brand and one of its longest-running shows. ESPN opted to bring the show back for a 30th season and third overall as a weekly program after moving away from a daily format in April 2017. Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice president of production and remote events, as well as a friend of Ravech dating back to their days at Ithaca College, will oversee the program and has already helped implement two significant additions.

The first is a daily SportsCenter segment called the “Baseball Tonight Report,” which will utilize remote hits from talent including Buster Olney, Tim Kurkjian and Jeff Passan to bolster traditional highlight coverage. It’s a major boon to the show’s visibility, as well as a way for ESPN to have its cake and eat it, too, by injecting elements of Baseball Tonight’s brand into daily programming while still confining the show itself to a specialized time slot on Sunday nights.

“To know that SportsCenter, which I grew up on at the network, is having a renewed interest in more baseball content is an important thing for the consumer,” Ravech says. “However they consume sports, they’re going to get more baseball. That’s a win as far as I’m concerned.”

The second, in Gross’ words, is “we’re going to get more aggressive with where the show goes.” Baseball Tonight plans to travel to the expected haunts, including multiple Sunday Night Baseball games, the MLB All-Star Game and the World Series. But it will also make stops at both the Men’s and Women’s College World Series, the Little League World Series and the baseball winter meetings in a bid to brand Baseball Tonight as a true roadshow. That format has been a smashing success with other properties like College GameDay, but Ravech believes the true benefits won’t be reflected in the ratings. Instead, he points to the credibility it builds among fans and baseball personnel alike to see ESPN boots on the ground.

“I always think that it’s very important for people that are on television and looked on as experts to be in the environment they are talking about [where the game] is being played,” he says. “Ultimately, as a sports fan, you want to know more about your team than the person you’re talking to. And if you have the people that are on the inside getting that information out to you, well, then you’re going to want to be a part of that, and you’re going to want to watch.”

Both Ravech and Gross, however, are not naïve to the larger challenge the show faces as a highlight-driven program in an era where consumers can simply pull up last night’s action on their phones.

“You’re battling for every second, every minute, for every segment to keep people watching,” Gross says, and Baseball Tonight believes the greatest weapon in its arsenal is an ingrained reputation for quality. There is the deep roster of analysts, which this year adds Ryan Howard as a regular and current Yankees starter CC Sabathia as a part-time contributor. There is the broadcast tone: Conversational yet informative, glib yet not too cursory. Gross says he’s keeping a close eye on each episode’s alchemy and how it balances baseball analysis with social moments as well as touching on the latest news.

READ MORE: Alex Rodriguez Takes Fans Behind the Curtain With New YouTube Channel

And, when it comes to those highlights themselves, Ravech is adamant that not all condensed game action is created equal.

“I kind of get offended when it’s, ‘You can get highlights anywhere,'” Ravech says. “Okay, well, you can go get a hamburger in seven different places. That doesn’t mean you stop making hamburgers. You try to do it the best, and I’ve always maintained we’ve done it the best and continue to do it the best.”

It’s a mantra ESPN hopes the rest of the baseball world keeps saying about Baseball Tonight overall.

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Inside the World of Pirated Streams, And What It Takes to Stop Them

Don’t want to pay for sports content? Free, illegal streams are one click away. Now the sports world is grappling with how to stop them.

Robert Silverman

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Photo Credit: Front Office Sports

On Tuesday night, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki suited up for the final home games of their illustrious careers. For a subsection of National Basketball Association fans living beyond the reach of local cable broadcasts or unwilling to shell out $249.99 for a yearly subscription to NBA League Pass ($39.99 monthly), that didn’t necessarily mean they missed out on two tear-strewn final acts. Not as long as they were willing to bend U.S. copyright law, that is.

All it took was a quick hop over to Reddit, specifically the r/nbastreams subreddit, and they’d find a treasure trove of swiped NBA content, all accessible free of charge. There, the subreddit’s 474,000-odd subscribers share and can access links to pirated hi- and standard-def live streams, plus helpful tips about which streams were buggy or tended to crash at the least opportune moments.  

To wit: Around 6:30 pm on Tuesday, a thread was posted with links to the Fox Sports Southwest, Fox Sports Arizona and NBA League Pass broadcasts of the Mavs-Suns tilt. A few minutes later, a similar thread went up for the game between the Heat and Sixers. Naturally, by the time the final buzzer had sounded, all of those links had been removed. Then the thread was deleted entirely, because why keep evidence of a crime lying around?

READ MORE: Budweiser Says Goodbye to Wade With New Sports Strategy

This is far from an NBA-centric problem. Pick a sport—any sport—and it’s all too easy to locate pirated broadcasts , most of which are hosted on sites abroad and are infinitely superior in quality to the janky popup-ad, malware-infused streams that were the norm as recently as a decade ago.

Reached by phone, Peter Cossack, the vice president of digital security for Irdeto, a leading online security company, said the streams have improved to such a degree that a “casual pirate” — as Cossack described someone who does not regularly consume illegal content — may not be aware that he or she is receiving stolen goods. Nowadays, “It’s very hard to tell between a legitimate and illegitimate site,” he said.

(The NBA, the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer did not respond to a request for comment. The National Hockey League declined to respond to specific questions, but in a statement, a representative said: “The NHL actively enforces [sic] against illegal live streams of its games, including cooperating with law enforcement in pursuing criminal charges where appropriate.”)

To hear the leagues and online security professionals describe it, the piracy business is booming. It’s a “growing problem,” and also a “global” one, with illegal sites scattered across the world, per a letter sent in February to the U.S. Trade Representative by The Sports Coalition, a lobbying group which advocates on behalf of every major men’s pro league and the NCAA. (The Sports Coalition has described piracy as a “growing problem” going back to the first year of its existence in 2007.)

According to data provided to Front Office Sports by Irdeto, the number of “aggregated visits” to illegally-streamed broadcasts grew from 143 million to over 245 million from May 2016 to May 2017—a 71 percent increase. Beyond run-of-the-mill regular season games and the YouTube videos detailing exactly how to go about stealing NFL content, extralegal streams sprout like dandelions around a high-profile sporting event or Pay-per-view boxing match on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

(YouTube and Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. Via email, a representative from Facebook asked Front Office Sports to provide examples of allegedly pirated content.

Within seconds, Front Office Sports found and shared two Facebook Live broadcasts of a Miami Marlins-Cincinnati Reds game, both of which included links to separate offshore streaming sites:

https://www.facebook.com/indriana.pustika.9/videos/105610210633677/

https://www.facebook.com/409714723149892/videos/1063746017141894/

In response, Facebook said: “we don’t have anyone available for an interview.” In a statement, the site said it spent “significant resources” preventing piracy. “Video publishers and media companies can provide reference streams of their live content in real time in Rights Manager, and if a match is found, immediate action is taken based on a rule set by the rights holder – for example, to block that stream,” the statement read.”By late Tuesday evening, the pages had either been removed by Facebook or deleted by their creator.)

The motivation for digital pirates is self-evident: money. One enterprising Toronto Raptors fan living in Egypt who went by the Reddit handle “velocityraps” claimed he earned between $15,000 and $20,000 per year via donations in exchange for posting the entire 2016-17 NBA season and the playoffs free of charge. Nor did he seem particularly worried about running into trouble with law enforcement. “It’s illegal, but who cares,” he told The Outline. “If they want to stop me, they have [sic] long way to go to catch me.”

After the article was published, velocityraps went dark and his account has since been suspended. In one of his final missives on Reddit, he shouted at the journalist who authored the piece: “FUCK YOU OWEN PHILLIPS.” [All-caps, his]

Shutting down one stream or even vast swathes of streams apparently hasn’t made much of a dent, either. As Yahoo Sports recently reported, those posting and profiting from illegal streams are far more nimble than the rights holders and the entities charged with enforcing the law:

[T]he pirates, in many cases, stay a step ahead. They ready backup. The actual humans cover their tracks. Takedown notices sent by leagues are ignored. Server blocking only works country-by-country, where laws permit, and domain-blocking sounds dandy until the criminals flip from “.com” to “.us” or “.live” and continue to operate. In 2012, the U.S. government seized 16 domain names as part of a piracy crackdown. Four of the 16 belonged to First Row Sports. But a day later, the self-proclaimed “heavyweight champion” of streaming reappeared at a new domain, and continues to live there today.

So if digital sports piracy is both rampant and seemingly unstoppable, how much financial harm is being incurred? That’s a far more difficult figure to nail down. Via Yahoo, some estimates have reached eleven digits:

London-based consultancy Ovum pegs it at 16 percent – $37.4 billion – of all digital TV and video earnings. Ontario-based Sandvine estimated a North American content provider shortfall of $4.2 billion in 2017. The most infamous case study might be the politically charged battle between sprawling pirate operation BeoutQ and Qatari-owned BeIN Sports, which claims the Saudi-based bootleg service has cost it more than $1 billion.

The only way to arrive at billion-dollar losses, though, is by concluding that anyone—from the leagues and the broadcasters to the online Pinkertons—is capable of accurately analyzing the granular functioning of a black market.

Assumptions necessarily abound in those calculations, and those assumptions are tilted in the rights holders’ favor, according to Rick Sanders, an attorney who specializes in copyright, trademark, and related litigation. Reached by phone, Sanders said that the staggering totals should be met with a raised eyebrow. Not only do those crunching the numbers fail to unpack their methodology, they further presume that anyone and everyone who watches a pirated stream would pay the full freight were illegal streams somehow eradicated from existence.

“That just isn’t common sense,” he said. Their work is not necessarily false or even wrong, to be clear, and there’s zero doubt the interested parties (rightly) believe piracy reduces profit. Rather, rights holders—all of whom very much want government entities and social media sites to assist in guarding the value of their product—have a clear motivation to describe “the worst-case scenario and then treat it as if it’s the most probable case,” said Sanders. “So I’d be skeptical.”

While HBO and Showtime have both gotten litigious and put in the work to tamp down on the proliferation of illegal streams, as have the leagues, Mark Taffet, the former HBO executive who helped create the cable company’s pay-per-view model, seemed to back up Sanders’ skepticism. In an interview with Yahoo in 2017, he said the proliferation of illegally streamed broadcasts of the 2017 Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor bout—239 streams, per data collected by Irdeto, which attracted ”approximately 2,930,598” sets of eyeballs—would not dramatically impact HBO’s bottom line. Instead, HBO divides potential viewers into two categories: “buyers” and “triers.”

The latter might check out an illegal stream, but they “were never going to buy [the pay-per-view fight], no matter what,” Taffet said. “They’re the triers.” (Taffet did not respond to an emailed request for comment.)

One trend that should cause some concern is the creation of a generation of viewers who expect all pro sports to be available free of charge, Sanders explained. There’s no telling to what degree that expectation is already being set. But as was the case with Napster in the early 2000s, “If I were the rights holders, it’d keep me up a little bit,” he said.

Similarly, Cossack added: “The biggest concern is the amount of piracy and making sure that you’re viewing that as competition to your platform because it is a direct competitor.”

In the United Kingdom, some legislative efforts appear to have stemmed part of the illicit tide. The English Premier League (EPL) announced that a grand total of “nearly 200,000” illegal streams were vaporized during the 2017-18 season alone thanks to a 2017 High Court Order which dragooned telecom companies into working on their behalf to shutter sites engaging in digital piracy. Charges and police raids also followed in its wake.

But Sanders isn’t optimistic about the prospect of similar legislation being passed in the U.S. for two reasons. One, there are vast differences in attitudes towards free expression both on- and offline between America and Europe, and previous attempts to bulk up anti-piracy measures like the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) were strenuously opposed by a coalition of online activists and pretty much every major internet company. Two, to be effective, legislation would have to threaten internet Service Providers (ISPs) directly. That is to say, if piracy transpired on any given system, the ISPs would be held liable for participating in copyright infringement. Again, Sanders has his doubts.

“You couldn’t get this [High Order] in the United States, that’s for sure,” he said.

Coincidentally (or not), the only sport whose subreddit met an untimely end is soccer’s  r/soccerstreams.

The subreddit’s moderators wrote in a now-deleted January post: “I regret to inform you all that a few days ago, the Reddit Admins got in touch with us about an impending ban of this subreddit if changes weren’t made. The only way to save it, from our perspective, was to cease all user related [sic] activity here.” Two spin-off soccer subreddits created by r/soccerstreams were also subsequently banned.

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In other words, Reddit is able to enforce its own copyright policy when it decides to do so—or when a league or broadcaster (or both) insists that their property is being pilfered. Of course, there’s no way to determine who or what entities may have put the screws to Reddit, but finding an illegal soccer stream is a bit harder and those ends were achieved without changing a single comma in the current U.S. statues.

Even if SOPA had passed or a rejiggered version eventually becomes the law of the land, “truly dedicated thieves will always find a way,” said Sanders. Given all the obstacles in place—websites which are hosted abroad; streaming content that often only exists and has value for a few hours; social media companies’ capriciousness when it comes to ridding themselves of bad actors—it’s hard to imagine a truly piracy-free future.

“A law is only as good the ability to enforce it,” Sanders said.

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BYB Extreme Hopes to Usher Bare Knuckle Boxing Back to Prominence

BYB Extreme has high hopes for the future of bare knuckle boxing in the United States, starting with a pay-per-view event in Wyoming on Friday night.

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Photo Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Vazquez believes everything that once was old eventually becomes new again. If he has it his way, bare knuckle boxing will soon fit that bill.

“Everything goes in cycles,” Vazquez said. “This is our cycle. Bare knuckle boxing has a bright future.”

Vazquez is the president of Back Yard Brawl Extreme, which will host its first sanctioned bare knuckle event, BYB Brawl 1: Brawl For It All, on Friday in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as well as on Pay-Per-View.

READ MORE: Building on Country Pride, Combate Americas Looks for Big 2019

Bare knuckle boxing dates back to at least the Roman Empire and was heavily popular into the late 19th century before falling out of favor due to perceived brutality. The sport reemerged in this century in backyards, eventually turning viral sensations like Kimbo Slice and Dhafir ‘Dada 5000’ Harris into mainstream stars in the fighting world.

Vazquez linked up with Harris in 2014 following a career in NASCAR. BYB Extreme held its first non-sanctioned event in 2015 before taking a brief hiatus for Harris, BYB Extreme’s brand manager, to recover after flat-lining twice following a 2016 fight with Kimbo Slice, suffering cardiac arrest, renal failure and severe dehydration. 

Friday night, however, is the promotion’s first real crack at mainstream legitimacy.

“This event is very important because first impressions last the longest,” Harris said. “The world’s anticipated what’s next for the sport, and this is the first impression of the next phase of its evolution.”

Friday’s event begins with two undercard fights livestreamed for free on fite.tv and Facebook Live at 9 p.m. EST before making the transition to pay-per-view. The weigh-in on Thursday was also livestreamed.

BYB Extreme fights are contested over five, three-minute rounds inside a triangle cage — the smallest space in combat sports — designed to keep fighters in close quarters while minimizing time spent in clinches. The modern bare knuckle subculture developed in the early 2000s in Florida, when hundreds, if not thousands of people gathered in backyards to watch the fights. Harris believes it gave him and other fighters a chance they never would have had otherwise.

“I look what we’ve done, and we’ve really prided ourselves on bringing the community together and giving individuals opportunities they weren’t getting elsewhere,” Harris said. “I focused on the good, and we did something special and revolutionized the sport.”

Now it’s creeping toward mainstream relevance. In addition to Wyoming, Mississippi has also legalized bare knuckle boxing and Vazquez mentioned the promotion is “working with several others.” BYB Extreme isn’t the first promotion in the space, either. The Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship has launched and garnered some steam, while another, the World Bare Knuckle Fighting Federation has run into money and legal trouble.

Perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle that BYB Extreme will contend with is outside perception, between the unvarnished violence and long-standing illegality. For his part, Vazquez contends that bare knuckle is actually a safer alternative to boxing and MMA. Gloves are meant to protect the hands and, in turn, promote more frequent and more robust headshots over a longer period of time.

“The actual boxing glove does more damage than shorter bare knuckle fights,” Vazquez said. “It’s usually more superficial, more skin damage, not the concussive force of the gloves.”

READ MORE: Cagenomics Highlights Professional Fighters League Deal With ESPN

Some outside research appears to bear that out, too, including a National Geographic study featured by Men’s Health and the United Kingdom’s Daily Star. Yet this is still bone striking bone with no buffer. More than that only so much can be done to create a genuinely safe environment in combat sports.

That tension only adds further risk to a startup venture, something Vazquez has tried to weather by paying 50 percent of fighters’ show money in advance as well as prepaying many of the contractors and hotels

Only time will tell if this truly is the start of a new cycle for bare knuckle boxing. For BYB Extreme, the first step toward finding out begins Friday night.

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BallerTV Takes Over Youth Sports Broadcasting One Game at a Time

In just its third year in operation, the livestreaming aims to broadcast 250,000 youth sporting events in 2019, with plenty more to come.

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Photo Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Angarita, Aaron Hawkey and Sandeep Hingorani didn’t have a dream, per se, when they launched BallerTV in 2016. They just noticed an opportunity. Livestreaming was surging in popularity yet there was no sport-specific program for lower-level games. The three men pounced.

Fast forward a few years, and BallerTV is set to broadcast more than 250,000 amateur sporting events in 2019, providing parents and college coaches unprecedented opportunities to watch amateur athletes throughout the country by way of a network of freelance videographers. The broadcasts are also archived for future viewings, preserving the types of games that for so long were only retained through memories.

“We’re all former athletes that played high-level high school athletes and so many of our best memories are rooted in sports, and the content doesn’t live anywhere,” Hingorani said. “We aimed to leverage technology to solve that problem and phase one was to build a livestream platform for sports.”

READ MORE: How a Camera System Helped Yale Make the Big Dance

BallerTV built their livestream platform using a team of Cal Tech computer engineers, taking care to incorporate contextual details like scores, player names and game clocks to differentiate itself from more homogenous platforms like Facebook Live and Periscope.

The growth has been meteoric. The platform debuted as a basketball-specific service by streaming the 2016 Tarkanian Classic basketball tournament. One year later, BallerTV was already up to 10,000 boys and girls basketball events. Its founders understood they were at a crossroads. Should they stay in their lane as a local livestream entity for basketball games, or should they aim for something far more ambitious?

“It was, ‘Could we achieve that scale to achieve the mission of never missing a game,” Hingorani said. “We’re all parents and have young kids, so we’re in the business of solving our own problems. We wanted to build something so every kid has coverage. Can we be that solution?”

They set out to find the answer, one way or the other — and quickly. By 2018, BallerTV had grown its operation 10-fold to broadcast 100,000 events in sports ranging from hoops to softball to football to volleyball. It boasts a 35-person staff working out of Pasadena, Calif. Dwyane Wade even signed on as the company’s first global ambassador. But the real muscle comes by way of approximately 30,000 videographers throughout the country in a sort of gig economy in the model of Uber or Postmates. It represents the company’s next stage of growth after broadcasts were initially streamed employees or parents.

“We needed to figure out a solution to own our own destiny,” he said. “That required recruiting our own workforce. There’s no shortage of people who are trying to make their break in sports, so we provide an opportunity to get an inside look at sports production and trying to expand spectrum of sports coverage, build a skill set and see how new media interacts with amateur sports.”

BallerTV is currently subscription-based in a deliberate attempt to avoid the pitfalls of chasing viewership numbers. Rather than worry about attracting a mass audience, it primarily caters to two niche consumer bases: parents and coaches, and scouts recruiting athletes for colleges. Solving their former was their goal but addressing the latter was something of a happy accident, a solution to the inefficiency of traveling across the country to watch enough players in person. According to Hingorani, at least one school from every Division I conference has subscribed to the service.

READ MORE: Sports Streaming Has Room for Improvement in 2019

As the platform continues to scale, BallerTV believes it has the potential to become even more attractive to sponsors once economies of scale come into play.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re in a rush to upend their business model once again. Hingorani said the company does not intend to pursue broadcast rights in the college or professional spheres. BallerTV knows its market share, and he believes they’re only scratching the surface of the problem they set out to solve.

“We’re trying to move downstream,” he said. “Where we win is using technology is to cover everything, even youth sports at an elementary level. We may be a ways from there, but there’s deep blue water ahead of us in the number of sports we can cover at [youth levels].”

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