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DAZN baseball show looks to take on ESPN—with former ESPN talent

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Just one year ago, DAZN, the British-owned OTT sports streaming platform, was an unknown in America. It had built a subscriber base in Austria, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, and Canada. Then DAZN (“da zone”) launched in the U.S. in September with expensive rights deals for boxing (Golden Boy Promotions and Matchroom Boxing) and MMA (Bellator) rights. But it remained only relevant to fans of combat sports.

Now it’s going after baseball fans.

On Thursday, timed to MLB Opening Day, DAZN debuts a nightly baseball “whip-around” show called “ChangeUp.” DAZN doesn’t have the rights to show full MLB games, but can cut in to a live game in an exciting moment for a few minutes at a time, like an “NFL RedZone” for baseball.

“ChangeUp” is an appeal to American baseball fans who don’t care to watch a full game these days anyway, and would rather catch the highlights. It is a direct shot at ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight.” And it’s anchored by former ESPN host Adnan Virk, with former ESPN president John Skipper running DAZN’s entire U.S. business.

“In today’s world where people are constantly on their phones or tablets, watching a single game can feel limiting,” Virk tells Yahoo Finance. “So the advantage of ‘ChangeUp’ is we’re offering you more options: two games at a time, with fun analysis and plenty of wit and banter.”

The show is co-produced by DAZN and MLB Network, and based out of MLB Network’s studio in Secaucus, N.J. MLB Network hosts will appear regularly on “ChangeUp.”

At a press event at the baseball bar Foley’s Pub in Manhattan on Tuesday night, DAZN trotted out all of the “ChangeUp” hosts to tout the show. Apart from Virk, it is a motley crew of faces that most baseball fans will not recognize.

Virk will anchor the show from 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, with rotating co-hosts Lauren Gardner (formerly a Colorado Avalanche reporter for Altitude Sports), Tony Luftman (NHL Network), Alfredo Lomeli (ESPN Deportes), and Scott Rogowsky of HQ Trivia fame. Lomeli says he will continue his ESPN gig along with DAZN; Rogowsky says he is “still working out” whether he will be able to continue hosting HQ Trivia on some evenings. Only Virk and Gardner, for now, have joined DAZN in full-time roles.

Jake Mintz and Jordan Shusterman, the millennials behind the popular baseball Twitter account @CespedesBBQ, will host from 10 p.m. to midnight on Saturdays and Sundays.

Humor will be the aim of “ChangeUp.” Rogowsky, at the event in Manhattan, highlighted his interest in bringing props onto the set, like a money cannon for a big contract signing. “I don’t want it to just be another studio show with an anchor desk,” he said. “I want action.”

Roger Clemens was also on hand at DAZN’s press event for a brief interview with Virk. DAZN is not announcing Clemens on any of its programming. But in an interview with Yahoo Finance, and wearing a DAZN polo shirt, the pitching legend said, “I’m going to be participating in a number of things with them. When I looked at their deal a couple months ago, I was as surprised as anybody that they’re going to be able to do live look-ins on the most crucial parts of the game. I mean, I get NFL RedZone, and this is incredible.”

Earlier this month, DAZN doubled its monthly price from $10 to $20.

Adnan Virk, host of "ChangeUp" on DAZN, with Roger Clemens at Foley's Pub in New York City on March 26, 2019. (Amanda Westcott/DAZN)

ESPN alums at DAZN

Adnan Virk was an on-air anchor at ESPN for nine years, hosting “Baseball Tonight,” college football shows, and even an ESPN movie review podcast, “Cinephile,” on the side. But the network fired him in February for leaking information to the media news blog Awful Announcing for a story on ESPN’s negotiations with MLB over “Baseball Tonight.”

Less than two months later, Virk landed at DAZN, where former ESPN president John Skipper, who also left the network amid controversy (he resigned from ESPN in 2017 over a “cocaine extortion plot”), is executive chairman.

Last year, following a round of talent layoffs in 2017, ESPN shrank its long-running “Baseball Tonight” show from nightly to once a week, on Sunday nights only (plus short segments inside SportsCenter this season). DAZN’s “ChangeUp” is stepping in, Virk says, “to offer baseball viewers who were being underserved by ESPN an outstanding opportunity to dive into the best sport.”

Skipper, in an interview with Yahoo Finance in October, was similarly bullish, and did not shy away from the ESPN comparison—and that was before DAZN had announced its baseball show.

“I loved being at ESPN,” Skipper said. “On the other hand, I will tell you that it is really fun to be in a position where you are not trying to navigate a transition, where you can jump right into the future. The future of sports is going to be on streaming services, and that is all we [at DAZN] have to worry about. I don’t have to worry about buying fights and then which one goes on cable and which one goes on my subscription service. We are a pure play. And we are buying content to put into a subscription service.”

Will baseball fans pay?

Indeed, DAZN is a subscription-only service. (DAZN will not disclose U.S. subscriber numbers, but says it has more than 1 million subscribers in Japan.) It boasts a ton of exclusive boxing and MMA fights, so the value is clear for fight fans. But will MLB fans pay $20 per month to watch a baseball talk show?

Virk says yes. “I do think ChangeUp will drive up DAZN subs,” he says. “If you’re a baseball fan, there’s truly no other place to get this kind of action. Every game, every team, every night. The best stars are on full display with hosts who are passionate but also irreverent and won’t take the game, or themselves, too seriously.”

DAZN has to hope this is the way young sports fans want to consume their sports now: in bites, rather than in full meals. Even Clemens, who played pro baseball for 24 years, buys the premise.

“Instead of sitting there and watching a three-hour game, you can bust in with bases loaded, it’s your guy at the plate, and you can stop whatever you’re doing at home or at a bar,” he tells Yahoo Finance. “You’re not going to miss much. So you’re not going to have to watch it later.”

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance and hosts the Sportsbook podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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