SECAUCUS, N.J. — On Opening Day of the baseball season, the streaming network DAZN debuted its latest experiment with former ESPN host Adnan Virk at a studio desk, looking for his missing co-host.
The bit continued when the camera cut to Scott Rogowsky, the millennial comedian and former HQ Trivia host, who was in the makeup room, wearing bunting as a cape and practicing the pronunciation of Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Jhoulys Chacin, before he realized he was late for his own show.
Down the hall in a control room on MLB Network’s campus, Jamie Horowitz, the former president of Fox Sports, watched it all unfold on a bank of monitors. He had created the show at the behest of John Skipper, the former president of ESPN, who now leads the North American operation of London-based DAZN, which is owned by an American-British Ukrainian-born billionaire.
A fair question: What, exactly, is going on here?
“ChangeUp” is a whip-around show — essentially baseball’s version of the NFL’s RedZone — that airs for several hours each night on DAZN, a subscription streaming service. It pairs a certain irreverence from Rogowsky and Virk with live look-ins from the nightly baseball schedule, showing the most exciting action in real time. “N-O-L-A. Nola,” Rogowsky sang when the Phillies’ Aaron Nola recorded an out on Opening Day.
But the show is experimental beyond its format. It’s a test for whether baseball can appeal to a younger demographic and whether an international network few people can pronounce — it’s “Da-Zone,” by the way — can become a major player for sports rights in the United States. The show is also a bet on a group of former ESPN’ers with fraught pasts, though their alleged misdeeds vary wildly in significance.
Horowitz, 42, who consulted for DAZN before he was officially hired to oversee content this month, was fired from Fox Sports two years ago after an internal investigation into sexual harassment. Before Fox, he worked at ESPN for Skipper, 63, who abruptly resigned as president of that company in 2017 over what he described as an extortion attempt stemming from a cocaine purchase. Virk, meanwhile, is a former “Baseball Tonight” host on ESPN; he was fired this year after a leak investigation.
Horowitz’s hiring comes amid a larger #MeToo-era debate about hiring men who were accused of inappropriate behavior at previous jobs. Skipper, in an interview, declined to address the issue.
“There are specific circumstances under which I was available and Jamie and Adnan are available that I don’t want to comment on,” said Skipper, who joined DAZN last year. “With Jamie, I hired a producer who can produce a great show, and with Adnan I hired a guy who can be a great host. At a humble start-up, you have the freedom to operate without a lot of corporate oversight. We’re building a brand, and we have a chance to be more offensive than defensive, and that might include hiring.”
He added, “I’m using offensive as in aggression, not meaning to bring offense.”
Horowitz declined to comment for this story. Fox Sports did not publicly state why he was fired. At the time, the network released a statement that referred to expectations of professional conduct, and Horowitz’s lawyer denied any wrongdoing on his behalf.
Said Virk: “In the broad sense you can say, ‘What are the odds that we’d all be working together?’ It’s a unique situation."
No one is eager to talk about the past, with all three men having hitched their futures to DAZN and to the ability of “ChangeUp” to help the network become a player for broadcast rights of elite American sports properties such as the NBA, NHL and NFL.
DAZN, which launched in 2016, is only new in the United States. With 3,000 employees worldwide (150 in North America), it operates in eight countries and will launch in Brazil later this year. It is most established in Japan, where the network streams the leading domestic soccer and baseball leagues, and in Germany, where it broadcasts the English Premier League, as well as NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball games.
Last year, it began a push into the United States, backed by founder and owner Len Blavatnik, who made his fortune in oil and gas and telecommunications and is worth $18 billion.
With few premier live sports rights available here, the company has focused on boxing, paying hundreds of millions of dollars for the exclusive rights to Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin fights. Last year, it struck a three-year, $300 million deal for “ChangeUp."
“We’re doing boxing and baseball because it’s opportunistic,” Skipper said. “Most rights are held by someone else. And most of them are held by ESPN.”
Many of those deals were signed by Skipper, and in the future, those rights will come up again. “ChangeUp” is an audition, Skipper said.
To build the show, he turned to Horowitz, whose data-driven approach at ESPN birthed a nightly show with Keith Olbermann and the fan-polling focused “SportsNation” — and, most famously, “First Take,” the high-decibel debate show that spawned a host of imitators.
Market research told DAZN that baseball fans were interested in a show for hardcore fans, something that closely resembled “Good Morning Football,” a popular morning show on NFL Network. That show embodies the ethos “ChangeUp” wants: a place for fans and players to get together and nerd out over baseball. Accordingly, DAZN hired GMF showrunner Logan Swaim to produce “ChangeUp” and instill a similar vibe.
“We’re a show for people who brag about owning a Darren Bragg bat, which I do,” Rogowsky said in the green room on Opening Day, referencing the former journeyman outfielder. Rogowsky, who played a year of baseball at Johns Hopkins, acquired his Bragg keepsake from a dumpster in Jupiter, Fla., at spring training in 2000.
The bells and whistles of the show speak to the demographic “ChangeUp” is after. An intruder alert alarm sounds whenever there is a runner in scoring position; a segment featuring best slides — “Sliding Dirty” — is reminiscent of GMF’s “Toe Drag Swag,” which highlights the best sideline grabs. The hope is to capture the vibe of two buddies watching games together on a bar stool.
The result feels energetic. Rogowsky is punny in the endearing way that Chris Berman once was, and Virk is a smooth professional. (Additional hosts take the late shift on weeknights, and Jake Mintz and Jordan Shusterman, the proprietors of the popular Twitter account @CespedesBBQ, host the show on weekends.)
But the mechanics of the show will not matter if no one is watching — or rather subscribing.
DAZN charges $19.99 per month or $99.99 per year, more than the $4.99 per month (or $49.99/year) charged by ESPN or the $9.99 per month (or $79.99/year) that Bleacher Report charges for their streaming services. (ESPN’s parent company, Disney, has said it expects ESPN+ to lose $650 million each of the next two fiscal years.) B/R Live has the UEFA Champions League, while ESPN+ has a library of content that offers more volume and variety than DAZN’s offerings.
If you aren’t a dedicated boxing fan, the price for DAZN’s baseball content is steep, especially considering MLB Network airs similar look-in shows during the week and analysis from the same cast of former players. Harold Reynolds and Mark DeRosa, for example, bounced from MLB Network to DAZN on Opening Day.
According to Richard Broughton, research director at the London-based media research firm Ampere Analysis, who has followed DAZN for several years, the economics of its American acquisitions make more sense from a boxing perspective, where Ampere estimates there are around 3 million households willing to pay for fight content. If around half signed up annually for DAZN, the deal would pay for itself. (DAZN does not release subscriber numbers. Forbes recently estimated that the network has more than 4 million global subscribers; Disney recently reported more than 2 million ESPN+ subscribers.)
“The boxing math can work, but baseball muddies the waters,” Broughton said.
While some 8 million to 9 million homes are willing to pay for baseball, Broughton said, two-thirds of them already have ESPN or MLB Network, and there is no exclusivity in what DAZN is selling. “It’s less clear who the baseball offering appeals to,” Broughton said.
The branding benefit of “ChangeUp” is another question. The company has partnerships with five major league teams, including the Washington Nationals. They provide in-stadium content and live look-ins during rain delays and ticket giveaways for DAZN subscribers.
DAZN has had discussions with other top leagues in the wake of the MLB deal.
“'ChangeUp' is a statement that we’re in the business of networking with major sports,” Skipper said. “I hope it’s a declaration of intent: that you will see us offer other sports on the network in the future.”
Asked about streaming rights for the NFL and the potential availability of Sunday Ticket, a package available on DirecTV that shows all out-of-market games, Skipper said, “Of course we’re interested in Sunday Ticket.”
Broughton, though, suggested DAZN was more likely to carve out smaller packages; imagine RedZone-like offerings for the NBA and NHL. More expensive, exclusive rights would remain elusive for the company, he said, because an entity such as DirecTV is able to subsidize its sports rights costs with non-sports fans subscribers.
In the meantime, “ChangeUp” remains a proving ground.
“John Skipper is the reason I took this job,” Virk said. “He was at the top of the food chain, and he had the foresight to gobble up live rights at ESPN. He has the credibility and the track record to make this work.”
With a chuckle, he added, “I hope our salaries aren’t tied to subscriptions.”
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