Wednesday, October 12, 2022

The brilliance behind ESPN3 and the growing digital empire of Disney/ESPN

By Zachary Baru

It might be easy to forget about the array of channel offerings from ESPN, as the network has grown from just one channel covering UConn basketball and Hartford Whalers hockey, to the global powerhouse it has become today.

Flash back to the 1980-81 National Hockey League season, and ESPN was the rights holders of, that's right, eleven Whalers broadcasts.  Home broadcasts, to be exact.  That's a far cry from what the "worldwide leader in sports" is today, part of a media empire owned by Disney, and connected to a portfolio that not only includes Disney Studios, but ABC, Hulu and of course, Disney+.  Suddenly, the brilliance of ESPN3 comes into play.

The Future of Distribution

I noticeably left out ESPN+ above, as it is ESPN's streaming subscription service.  But ESPN+, in many ways, is the future of ESPN.  This is where the role of ESPN3 becomes more important, and ESPN unsurprisingly has done a masterful job implementing it into it's collection of content.  

When I said ESPN+ in many ways is the future of ESPN, I don't only mean the significance of a streaming platform in today's environment of entertainment, but also the speculation of many that ESPN will one day distribute directly to consumers.  Many sources, lead by Sports Business Journal and Front Office Sports, have written about ESPN's possible plans of going direct to consumer.  Sports Business Journal reports that this potentially could happen by 2026.  

With the possibility of ESPN being a direct to consumer service similar to that of HBO Max and the Showtime App, both of which allow consumers to directly subscribe to the service without a cable subscription, suddenly content becomes more important than ever.  And when it comes to content, ESPN has no shortage in sight.  

The Crowded Family of ESPN

Between ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews (no that's not a typo, that's how it's spelled), ESPNU, ESPN Deportes, and of course, ESPN+, ESPN is already not only producing a great deal of content, but they are producing an enormous amount of live content each day.  This is where ESPN3 comes into play, no pun intended.  

ESPN3 has been producing streaming content since the network began in 2005, when it was initially called  It began streaming live sporting events in 2007, and in 2010 was rebranded as ESPN3.  With the launch of subscription service ESPN+ in 2018, much of ESPN3's content was shifted over to ESPN+ to offer subscribers more options, and especially, more live events. 

ESPN3 in Present Day

Today, ESPN3 could be referred to as somewhat hidden, but still advertised whenever a live event is shown on an ESPN channel's bottom line or any graphic advertising an ESPN3 game.  It's not the type of channel you will see a commercial for, as you'd see for ESPN+.  ESPN3, however, is still visible through the ESPN App, which many sports fans use on mobile phones, tablets or smart TVs.  A game that is airing on ESPN3 will most likely not be one of the first games shown on the app where live events are displayed, rather it usually is at the end of the list.  The one exception is if ESPN3 happens to be streaming one of your "favorited" teams.

Although ESPN3 content has become less and less over the years, ESPN3 is still producing a decent amount of live games each week.  A glance at ESPN3's schedule on this particular week shows only one live event on Thursday, but 26 live events on Saturday.  This is typical, as the network does broadcast a large amount of college events, which have heavy weekend schedules.  ESPN3's content, however, is varied.  There are alternative streams of NBA games, giving fans different views of the court, international soccer exhibitions, as well as international pro leagues for multiple sports.  All of this leads to the goal of any player in the TV industry in 2022: content.  Content is king.  Not just any content, but good, well-produced content.  And although some of ESPN3's offerings might not be your first choice, they do offer a varied selection. 

The Game Plan 

So what does this all mean?  ESPN, as expected, is playing the game well.  They are keeping up with other streaming platforms and ensuring that they have enough live sports produced on a weekly basis to keep people watching the ESPN App in some way.  Whether that is a paying subscriber for ESPN+, or a paying cable subscriber who gets access to ESPN3.  And whatever they choose to do with their ESPN3 content, the important thing to remember is that this "extra" channel gives the network a lot of options with how they are going to move forward if they ever distribute directly to consumers.  

At a time when content is everything, ESPN3 has allowed Disney to position itself exactly where it wants to be for the foreseeable future, the reigning "worldwide leader in sports".

Source: ESPN, Sports Business Journal, Front Office Sports

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

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