Friday, August 20, 2021

New media rights deal with ESPN a homerun for the NHL

By Zachary Baru

Perhaps some fans would call it a "hat trick", but regardless of what you refer to it as, the new media rights deal that places National Hockey League games on ESPN for the first time since 2004 is a major victory for the NHL and their brand.

It was June 7, 2004, at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.  The Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Calgary Flames in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, marking the last time ESPN broadcast an NHL game.  A lot has changed since 2004, and ESPN now has more networks than ESPN2 and ESPNews (yes, that is how they spell it).  ESPN is now an entire digital platform, as the ESPN App includes not only all linear ESPN networks, but also ESPN3 and ESPN+ live content, available exclusively to ESPN+ subscribers.  

To say it is a different world in media is an understatement, but this provides quite the opportunity for the NHL as they transition into a new media rights partnership.  In addition to games that are already on ESPN+, the new deal places games on Hulu as well, a platform owned by ESPN parent Disney.  Between ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, ESPN+ and Hulu, the NHL never has had more exposure, thanks to this new media rights deal.  

In addition to games across multiple channels and platforms, the new deal with ESPN can almost certainly provide more air time for NHL highlights on ESPN's SportsCenter, the highest rated sports highlight show in the U.S.  These highlights are arguably just as beneficial for the NHL as the platforms, since millions of non-NHL fans will be introduced to daily highlights, giving the NHL the opportunity to add new fans each day.

There are many reasons why having the NHL on ESPN brings the league to new levels, but besides the number of platforms of Disney/ESPN and the addition of highlights on SportsCenter, the legitimacy of ESPN cannot be overlooked.  ESPN is the premier brand of sports entertainment in the United States and in many parts of the world.  Simply being aired on ESPN brings the NHL to a higher level on par with other major leagues.  Not being on ESPN is perhaps a major reason why the NHL has lost respect of some sports fans since the league's departure from ESPN in 2004.  Now with the new rights deal, non-NHL fans might be more likely to give the NHL more respect, and most importantly, the television ratings and attendance that the NHL needs to compete with the other three major leagues.  Of the four major leagues in the U.S., the NHL will be the last to secure a current media rights deal with ESPN.

Whether it is long overdue or perfect timing in the new media landscape of digital platforms, the NHL on ESPN rights deal comes at a great time for the league.  On the network side, it also gives ESPN coverage with all four major leagues in the U.S., something that is very important to ensuring ESPN secures its status as the top sports network in the U.S. and in many areas of the world.  The recent additions of games on ESPN+ and the new coverage that will be coming to Hulu will give the NHL the streaming coverage all major leagues need in this new age of media consumption.  It is hard to say who benefits more from this new rights deal, but regardless of the true winner, both ESPN and the NHL have improved their brands in a partnership that has the opportunity to take the NHL to even new heights.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Why tonight’s Super Bowl LV will likely become the most watched TV event of all time

By Zachary Baru

In a year filled with lockdowns and social distancing, tonight’s Super Bowl LV has a very good chance of setting a new television viewership record.  

It is not uncommon for a Super Bowl to set viewer records, as an event when so many turn to their TV for more than just the game.  The halftime show has become an event in itself, and the game is more of an American tradition than a sporting event.  But this year something is much different - social distancing has become the new norm, and with that, ratings could have a large spike. 

Ratings could see a large rise for two factors, and both of which work off one another.  The first, being many more people at home than usual, as this year more than any year people are staying inside.  On a typical Super Bowl Sunday, people may stay inside, but they go to parties and watch in large groups.  That will all likely change this year.

Those large Super Bowl parties in many cases will become small groups of two or four, multiplying the ratings of would-be parties of 10 or 20.  Even if fans watch the game with two or three other people, the NFL would still see much higher ratings than the usual ratings of parties of 10 or more, normally counted as one household rating.  That one household could potentially become two, three or more households staying at home.  

Another completely non-COVID factor that should not be forgotten is the teams and players themselves.  Tom Brady alone will draw in many viewers, whether you love or dislike him.  As Brady goes for his seventh championship ring, many will watch to either root for him, or in hopes he won't get another Super Bowl ring to add to his collection.  You can certainly count on the large Boston demographic, and worldwide New England Patriot fanbase, Brady's former team, to either root him on or seek their revenge.  

The defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs also have a fairly large following nationwide, adding to the potentially massive ratings for this evening.  While the two markets playing tonight are not traditionally recognized as large media markets, the Chiefs have a following that travels across several midwest states that do not have NFL teams.  Tampa is also no small city if you include the entire metropolitan area.  The city itself only has 387,000 residents, but the entire metro area including St. Petersburg and Clearwater has a population of just over 3 million people, the eighteenth largest metro area in the country.

With these factors playing off each other, and the effects of COVID-19 changing many peoples’ lifestyles, this years’ Super Bowl will be watched in a much more intimate way, driving up the ratings, and very likely setting a new TV viewership record as the most-watched TV event in history.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and

Monday, January 18, 2021

The most innovative team of the year: appreciating all the Raptors have done, in only two months

By Zachary Baru

Having no venue to play at, having no where to practice, and figuring out a way to market their slogan "We the North" in Tampa, Florida would each be a full-time project for any sports franchise to accomplish.  But imagine doing all of that in the span of only two months.  The Toronto Raptors of the National Basketball Association did just that, and should undoubtedly be given credit as the most innovative of the year.

Now of course, the title "most innovative team of the year" is not an actual award.  But in the eyes of sports fans worldwide, there are few teams in 2020 that have changed and adapted as much as the Raptors.  If there ever was a team to get a "most innovative" award, the Raptors would almost certainly be in the running, if not the one on top.

The Venue

The Raptors entered November 2020 not knowing where they would play home games.  Forget the venue, forget the city, they didn't even know the country.  With COVID-19 creating a travel ban, the Canadian-based team and only NBA franchise in the country had to adapt to the conditions of the pandemic.  As if that was not hard enough, the NBA decided to allow teams to play at their home venues instead of the bubble that was created the previous season, meaning the Raptors needed a home, and fast.

Enter beautiful Tampa, Florida.  Yes, Tampa, Florida - not Tampa Bay, the region it is often referred to as.  But the City of Tampa happens to have Amalie Arena, a 20,500-seat arena that has never been home to an NBA team.  While the arena is fairly new, built in 1996, it has been updated throughout the years and happens to be a modern arena that also is home to the National Hockey League's Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Practice Facility

When talks between the Raptors and Amalie Arena heated up and become a reality, mostly all within one month, the Raptors had another issue: where to practice.  Since the arena is home to the Lightning, and since most NBA teams have designated training facilities for full practices, the Raptors once again needed to make an eleventh-hour decision.  Just like their venue, the Raptors were able to secure a practice facility very quickly, finalizing the agreements for both all within about a one-month span.  

By November 20, 2020, the announcement was made: the Toronto Raptors would call Tampa their temporary home.  And for their practice facility?  The franchise's quick and innovative thinking continued when they announced that their Tampa hotel's ballroom would serve as their practice court.  With a practice court just steps away from their rooms, and an arena just a short walk from their hotel, the Raptors management were not just innovative, they were accommodating, making the otherwise tough change of venue as easy as they possibly could for the players.  While there is no question it will be extremely tough for those who have family and other ties to the City of Toronto, the team seems to have genuinely tried to make the transition as comfortable as possible for players.

The Slogan

One last part of the Raptors' transition this season that seems to be overlooked is their marketing.  The team is known for excellent marketing, and although they didn't make any change to their widely popular slogan "We the North", the fact that they didn't make a change just might be the most important decision.  Many speculated the team might temporarily change their slogan to "We the South", but the Raptors were able to prove to their fanbase the teams' loyalty, while also taking the opportunity to promote their actual meaning behind the well-known slogan.  

For the teams' temporary court at Amalie Arena, the word "North" has been written in 25 different languages outside the court's border.   Those languages are English, Filipino, Portuguese, Spanish, Taiwanese Mandarin, Italian, French, Hindi, Indonesian, Lithuanian, Mongolian, German, Greek, Polish, Malay (Malaysian), Hausa, Mandarin, Contonese, Bengali, Turkish, Japanese, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic and Dutch.

The team wanted to emphasize that the slogan "We the North" did not strictly relate to geography, but to the many cultures who makeup their fanbase.  “We The North isn’t necessarily an idea of you living in Toronto, Canada. It’s more that we are the outsiders who play our game the way we play our game." said Kevin Mones in a press release.  Mones is the creative director at Maple Leafe Sports and Entertainment, ownership group of the Raptors.  

As for any questions about the possibility of a temporary slogan "We the South", the Raptors immediately ended that talk by sticking a large "We the North" front and center on the new court.  

From having no venue to play at, to having no where to practice, and even figuring out a way to market a slogan that geographically no longer made sense, the Toronto Raptors have proven the ability for a professional sports franchise to use an incredible amount of innovative thinking in an extremely short amount of time.  Given the pressure of everything they faced, it would be hard to not at least put the Raptors on the list of most innovative teams of 2020.  A feat the front office worked hard to achieve, and will be remembered in the industry for doing so for many years to come.  

Source: National Basketball Association, Tampa Bay Times

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

State of the game: which NBA teams are playing with fans, without fans, and which are still TBA

By Zachary Baru

With each state having different restrictions on in-person events, it can become difficult to figure out which National Basketball Association teams are allowing fans, and which will be playing in front of empty arenas.  The NBA released an updated list on January 1, and below is a simplified version many fans want to know: does my team allow fans or not?  And exactly which teams around the league are allowing fans?  As cases are changing daily, this list could easily change as well.  In a challenging season like no other, the league continues to try to save the season, accommodating the different state regulations in all regions of the league.  

Teams Not Allowing Fans:

Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Washington Wizards

Teams Allowing Limited Fans:

Atlanta Hawks: Team family and friends, 10 percent capacity beginning Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 18.

Cleveland Cavaliers: 300 fans admitted.

Houston Rockets: "Reduced capacity"

New Orleans Pelicans: 750 fans, about 4% of capacity.

Orlando Magic: Approximately 4,000 fans physically-distanced.

Toronto Raptors: 3,800 seats fans allowed at a temporary home venue, Amalie Arena in Tampa.  There will not be any seats on the floor, and there will not be any seats within 30 feet of the court.

Utah Jazz: 1,500 fans allowed in the lower bowl and limited seating in suites.

To Be Announced:

Minnesota Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ers

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Without fans, the arena set-up becomes a key factor for TV viewers

By Zachary Baru

The way an arena chooses to set up the floor and lower bowl has typically been overlooked by television audiences.  It is usually a decision that affects the fans at the game, instead of the fans watching at home.  But what happens when all of the fans are watching at home?  For the first time, arena set-ups are getting more attention from sports fans on television, and the way an arena chooses to set up, can potentially affect the on-screen product for the fans.

The Fans' Perspective

Like so much on television, the visual appearance is a very important factor of the on-screen product.  Typically in sports, people care much more about what is happening on the court or ice over how the playing surface is set up.  But in 2020, with many games being played with 100% of the fans at home,  the way a venue sets up changes the entire audiences' perspective of the game.

For example, if this was 2019, and you were watching one of the G-League games that is broadcast on NBATV, you might see a team that plays in a medium-sized arena that has a much different floor setup than the NBA.  The reason is obvious, minor league teams in all sports attract smaller crowds than the major league teams.  

Major League Teams Face a Minor League Problem

One thing that is often seen in the G-League to combat this issue is a different approach to a floor setup.  Since all of the floor space is not needed for seats, many teams will set up "boxes" with table seating or "private" seating areas for fans or companies.  Some minor league teams have displayed new cars next to the court to fill in the space, and other minor league or college teams have taken most or all of the seating away from the floor, filling up the space with press tables or a second row for team personnel to sit.  

This is an approach teams have made to fill in empty floor space in the past, but what should NBA and top-tier college teams do in 2020?  And what about the lower level for NBA and NHL games, should all the seats be empty, or covered with tarps displaying ads or team logos?  All of this is still a work in progress, but is also overlooked as potentially a key factor in the on-screen image of the game.

For the teams playing without fans, their fans entire experience of the team now comes from a 16:9 aspect view through their television.  And lets not forget about the fans watching on phones and computers, all of which are watching the same broadcast and experiencing the game the way all other fans are - at home.  

The Importance of the Visual Fan Experience

For the teams playing without fans, 2020 marks the first time ever in sports history all fans can experience the game in the same exact way, through the screen.  For these games, with zero fans getting the experience of watching live in person, the view the fans see becomes such an important factor.  And thus the questions, should there be empty seats on the floor?  Fill in the floor with press boxes?  Or maybe screens of virtual fans?  And so on.  And for both hockey and basketball, what should teams do with the empty lower levels?  Should fans on TV see empty seats?  Tarps of ads?  Tarps with team logos and messages?  And so on.  Which brings us back to the main question, how do arenas set up in 2020 without fans?  The answer might be more simple than one would think.

The answer just might be that there is no one true answer.  All leagues are different, all fans are different, and the desires of fans are most certainly different.  It is an impossible question for teams to get 100% right, as the on-screen image all fans see of the game will most likely come down to the decisions of front offices throughout the leagues.  

Once a simple decision of three rows of seating behind the bench at a basketball game, or placing a banner over an empty wall at a hockey game, now becomes a much different decision.  Watching a basketball game without any seats on the floor simply looks strange.  Watching a hockey game with 100% empty seats behind the glass looks boring.  But then what about the people who enjoy the extremely rare sight of a completely empty arena?  Placing tarps over all of those seats ruins that rare opportunity.  It might not seem like a big problem for the average sports fans, but it is one front offices around the sports world are trying to tackle.  In a year when everything changed, the perspective sports fans have of the games has changed as well.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The cost of losing fans at games runs much deeper than just the stadiums

By Zachary Baru

In response to COVID-19, many professional and collegiate sports decided to ban fans at stadiums and arenas, but just how far does the economic and personal loss run for those with sports industry-related jobs?

To look at this accurately, one could start by looking at the stadiums and arenas themselves, and work out to all of those affected in the cities in towns where the games are played.  It becomes apparent that many who are affected do not actually work for the sports teams, or in some cases, may not refer to themselves as sports-related employees.  The reality, however, is that sports is a major economic driver in any town, city, state or region.  And while closing games off to fans may be the right public safety decision, it is a major economic loss for all those affected.  Lets take a closer look at who those people are.

If you started at the stadium or arena, you would first find many ticket agents and customer service agents helping fans.  You would see security outside of the venue and throughout the inside of the stadium or arena.  It should be noted that some of the security staff would be retained for games even without fans.  

Next, you would find a long list of food-related employees.  One of the most notable losses are those serving food up and down the stands.  But there are still a long list of other employees at concession stands, others as servers or bartenders, and others as dishwashers, bar backs, and of course, managers supervising the concession stand, in-venue restaurant or bar.  

Without fans, there is a smaller need for public parking, and this means the loss of parking attendants.  Especially at large stadium events or even arena events, parking attendants can employ a large amount of people.  It is easy to overlook parking, but this is an area that is hard hit by the loss of having fans. 

One of the last areas that will be impacted are team employees working in the fan relations department.  Many teams will have different names for these employees, and sometimes they may be unpaid interns, but regardless, they still offer a key opportunity for those seeking experience in the sports industry.  Without fans, these employees are not needed.

It is safe to say, as you leave the idea of the venue, that already a great deal of jobs have been lost.  But unfortunately, this is really is just one part of the economic affect.  One of the first areas outside of the venue that will see a monetary loss are the restaurants and bars.  There are two major issues here: first, the business owners, many of them small businesses, who see a major loss of revenue.  But secondly, the fact that many of the employees at these businesses are often college-aged and using their wages toward paying for their education.  Added to the loss of in-school learning, students can easily become one of the hardest hit demographics of the pandemic.  The restaurants and bars near the venues depend on the stadiums and arenas for pre and post-game business, and become extremely hard hit when fans are absent from the venues.

The restaurant issue runs a little deeper than just the business owners and staff.  It becomes a municipal and state issue when the loss of local and state taxes are figured in.  Local and state governments depend on these tax revenues, and have seen major losses during the pandemic.

When examining the outside of the venues, restaurants and bars are not the only business affected.  Shops see a similar loss, and even taxi and ride-share drivers that typically see a large surge in traffic from these events.  The local and state tax revenue from both of these areas should also be noted, and adds up to a major loss for governments.

The last area we will examine, although there are arguably others, will be hotels.  This is a major industry with a lot of parts affected.  Hotels near venues will still get teams, team staff, league staff, referees, and a great deal of media, but one big part of their revenue will be missing: fans.  The loss of fans represents a major loss of revenue for the hotels, affecting the staffing levels including front desk agents, managers, room service, restaurant servers, restaurant managers, dishwashers, bartenders, bar backs, and maintenance.  No fans, means less patrons, meaning less hours or jobs for all of these staff members that keep hotels running each and everyday.  It should also be noted that while many hotels are corporate-owned, plenty are also independently owned or franchises owned by local business owners, who are also greatly affected.

This list could possibly be continued, but the issue is clear - the loss of fans at sporting events is a massive loss for the entire community.  It runs far deeper than the arenas and stadiums where the games are played, affecting millions of people just trying to make a living.  Whatever your position on the COVID-19 response is, and politics aside, the fact remains that there is a real affect of removing fans from games.  It becomes apparent that just as much as the teams are affected, it is the people around the teams who are also very much affected.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and

Friday, June 19, 2020

Life in the indoor game after the bankruptcy of the Arena Football League

By Zachary Baru

After thirty-two seasons, the Arena Football League may be no more, but life for the indoor game still remains very active in arenas throughout the United States.

The AFL filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in November 2019, which as it turns out may very well be a blessing in disguise for a sports world suffering a very questionable year ahead during a pandemic.  But whatever the future may hold for the AFL, which has come back from bankruptcy before, the fact remains that the indoor game remains very strong.

A New Era for Indoor Football

While the AFL was once a very nationwide league, it has become very clear that indoor football now sees two leagues that have risen to the top.  Officially, of course, neither is considered the major league, that all comes down to the opinion of fans.  In terms of media coverage, however, it is clear that the two major leagues are the Indoor Football League and the National Arena League.  The IFL has mostly western teams, and the NAL has mostly eastern teams.    

These two leagues are not affiliated with one another, and at one point the NAL was widely considered a development league to the AFL, but these two independent organizations carry the privilege of being the top two indoor football leagues in the country. 

The rules of arena football were immediately patented back when the AFL began in 1987.  With the patent and trademark of the name, the AFL was able to be the only "arena football" league in the country for decades.  The AFL had original ideas such as nets behind the end zones, bordered by yellow bars, allowing a kicked ball to bounce off and be returned during play.  It was not only extremely interesting for fans to watch, but it created a very fast pace for the game, and attracted a growing audience of younger fans who demanded a quicker pace of game play.  

A Focus on Streaming

While the current leagues, the IFL and NAL, do not use the same end zone nets that the AFL became known for, the two current leagues are still going strong.  One of the best things both the IFL and NAL have done has been a focus on streaming games, an area of sports which has seen a large amount of growth in over the last five years.  Some leagues have done it better than others, but the IFL and NAL have not allowed one thing to keep them behind: greed.  

While many leagues, both major and minor, make fans pay to watch streamed games in terms of a package, subscription, or for many minor leagues, a pay-per-view approach, the IFL and NAL has taken the Joe Rogan approach - put everything on YouTube.  All games are live streamed, no sign-in required.  By using the massive reach of YouTube across all devices, computers, phones and smart TVs, fans anywhere can watch any game live from the comfort of their own couch.
While the IFL and NAL may not get the financial benefits of a subscription service or a TV deal, what these leagues are doing is guaranteeing access to fans worldwide, however they may be accessing YouTube.  And in 2020, with so much of the world on YouTube every day, this type of access is priceless.  The leagues don't have to worry about network time slots, and they can guarantee their fans can watch from any device, anytime they choose, either live or on demand.  

There is no question TV deals are where the money is, but for emerging leagues like the IFL and the NAL, access to fans may very well prove to be more important to support long-term growth.  The IFL and NAL's focus on streaming has proven to work for both leagues, as thousands of fans watch every streamed game on YouTube, and the IFL's championship last year has been streamed a combined 36,000 times between the separate streams of each teams' broadcasters.  Highlights of this game also have been streamed an additional 7,000 times on the IFL's YouTube Channel.

The Two Leagues on Top

Officially neither league is ranked higher than the other, and now that the AFL is not playing, both are widely considered to be the "major leagues" of indoor football.  But in terms of league age, number of teams, and streams, the IFL would win all categories.  Does this mean the IFL is above the NAL, not exactly.

The IFL has been around longer than the NAL, as the IFL was founded in 2008.  The IFL also has more teams, with 13 during the now cancelled 2020 season, most of which are western.  The IFL also gets more streams on YouTube than the NAL, as four games last season in the IFL were streamed at least 10,000 times.  Other games are frequently over 5,000 streams, showing a growing audience for not only the IFL but indoor football in general.

The IFL's digital media presence also arguably is supreme, as they not only have an excellent YouTube Channel, but a very modern website that has a lot to offer fans.  

The NAL of course should be recognized as the other "major league" of indoor football.  The NAL was founded in 2016, has 7 teams, most of which being eastern.  The NAL also live streams all games on YouTube, something that should only grow the league more in the future.

Legacy and Future  

With two top-tier leagues, and what ends up being a very strategic regional approach, the sport of indoor football remains in good hands.  The AFL will always be remembered as being the top indoor league in the country, and at one point had a national TV contract that rivaled other major leagues, when NBC broadcast multiple national games every Sunday afternoon in the mid-2000's.  

The AFL was also featured on ABC/ESPN throughout its three decades, and later on CBS.  It will always have a place in football history, and while the league remains dark now, there is no telling what the future may hold.

Source: USA Today, Arena Football League, Indoor Football League, National Arena League

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and