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Volume 20 No. 42


ESPN Classic’s 19-year history as a full-fledged TV channel is nearing an end. In its place, the channel best known for its pre-HD footage of old games is being reinvented as a video-on-demand channel.

The move is one of the overlooked parts to Disney’s massive carriage deal with Dish Network, which was announced last week. The long-term Dish Network deal includes rights to an over-the-top service, restrictions to Dish’s ad-skipping service, and launch agreements for SEC Network and Longhorn Network.

But the deal also includes language that will see Dish Network remove ESPN Classic as a 24/7 channel in place of an ESPN Classic VOD service that will use IP technology.

“This was a really cool part of our Dish Network deal,” said David Preschlack, executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for ESPN. “The next iteration of Classic is going to be a really powerful consumer proposition.”

Details on the service are scarce. Preschlack said he expects the VOD service to launch in the next couple of months. But he also said both ESPN and Dish Network executives still are figuring out how the channel will look and what it will offer. Executives envision a service with classic college football games in the run-up to the College Football Playoff and classic college basketball games in the run-up to the NCAA tournament. It also expects the service to be regionalized with offerings to appeal to a specific area’s fans.

“We cooked it up with Dish,” Preschlack said. “We don’t know how it will look yet. It is a work in progress.”

The service will be offered to other distributors as their carriage deals with ESPN end. Subscribers most likely will have to subscribe to a digital tier to get access to the service.

The creation of an ESPN Classic VOD service for Dish Network has a similar feel to the creation of ESPN Goal Line and ESPN Buzzer Beater in 2010. Those whip-around Red Zone-style channels were created during ESPN’s Time Warner Cable carriage negotiations. Those channels later were made available to other distributors.

The move to VOD signals the end to a channel that ESPN bought from a group including Brian Bedol for $175 million in 1997. The channel never brought in big viewer numbers, and ESPN ran into problems obtaining rights to old games for many leagues.

In 2009, ESPN decided to make ESPN Classic a sports-tier channel, trading its carriage with ESPNU, which is where the company saw more growth potential. ESPN Classic dropped from a distribution footprint of 64 million homes in October 2009 to 29 million homes in March 2014, according to Nielsen.

“We think it’s going to make the ESPN Classic brand more valuable,” Preschlack said. “This was a collaborative effort with Dish Network.”

Chicago-based Sportvision Inc. has received a direct challenge from MLB Advanced Media’s new effort to develop a player tracking system in conjunction with TrackMan A/S and ChyronHego Corp. But Sportvision thinks it will survive the new arrival and remain a long-term partner of baseball’s digital arm.

The MLBAM initiative, announced at the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, involves combining camera and radar technologies to create the ability to measure the speed and path of every player on the field as well as the ball. The effort seeks to build upon more than five years of work that Sportvision has already conducted with MLBAM on its camera-based Pitch f/x, Hit f/x, and Field f/x products.

Sportvision’s Pitch f/x has become a widely used benchmark for measuring pitcher performance. By marrying the new MLBAM data with video, the as-yet-unnamed system seeks to create new measures such as “route efficiency,” which tracks how direct a path to the ball a fielder takes. Other indices will gauge batted-ball speed and fielder acceleration and reaction time.

MLBAM executives said they would continue to use Sportvision products for the 2014 season but were noncommittal about any time after that. Hank Adams, Sportvision chief executive, remains a firm believer in his products and their long-term prospects.

“We’ve been aware for a while this was coming and that they were looking at other solutions. But we like our approach and are confident in it,” Adams said. “I suspect we’ll be a partner of theirs in some fashion for the long term.”

Both the new MLBAM product and Sportvision’s Field f/x remain in embryonic states, holding the promise but not yet the full realization of providing reliable, objective defensive metrics that have long eluded baseball executives. Sportvision’s product is installed in San Francisco’s AT&T Park, Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field, Boston’s Fenway Park and Milwaukee’s Miller Park. MLBAM’s system will also be tested this season in Miller Park, providing a side-by-side comparison, along with Target Field in Minneapolis and Citi Field in New York, with a leaguewide rollout planned for 2015.

Much of the difference between the two competing systems comes down to the use of radar technology. MLBAM is using TrackMan A/S, best known for its work in golf with the PGA Tour in tracking ball flight and swing mechanics with radar, to buttress its video-based work. Adams said Sportvision has looked extensively at radar-based technologies for its f/x systems, but has not embraced them.

“We know radar well. We’ve looked a lot at it. But it has its limitations” within baseball, Adams said.

MLBAM is promising to release much of the data generated by its new player tracking system to baseball operations personnel, broadcast operations and the public during the 2014 season, but those plans are not complete. MLBAM is still developing fair access rules for teams, as well as a process to verify the analytics it’s creating.

'Where Sportvision and MLBAM do agree is an interest in creating a true and complete digital record of the sport.
“Right now, nothing’s changed,” with Sportvision, said Bob Bowman, MLBAM president and chief executive. “The more, the better, and we’re looking forward to getting a lot of feedback from teams.”