Rounding bases: BAMTECH’s European venture

From its origins as part of Major League Baseball’s digital unit, BAMTECH Media has risen to become one of the most influential companies in live streaming. Now, BAMTECH Europe is taking on new territories across the Atlantic.

Rounding bases: BAMTECH’s European venture

For much of its existence, BAMTECH has been, if not quite a surprise package, then a surprising one. 

Spun off from Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), itself created to bring one of the most content-rich competitions in sport to life online, it has made its reputation in specialist circles as a digital streaming pioneer through a dizzying sequence of projects. Major League Soccer, the PGA Tour, HBO and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) became clients; Apple and Sony Vue head a roster of trusted partners. 

It was three deals, over a period of a little more than two years, that finally opened the wider industry’s eyes to what MLBAM and more recently BAMTECH had been doing. The first came back in August 2015, when MLBAM announced a six-year digital rights agreement with the National Hockey League (NHL), reported at the time to be worth an annual US$200 million to the latter: US$100 million in rights fees, US$80 million in equity in what would become BAMTECH, and an estimated US$20 million in savings on what was required to improve the NHL’s in-house offering. 

If that was an indication that baseball’s digital arm was stretching out in unexpected directions, what has happened since has only served to confirm its potential reach. A year later, in August 2016, The Walt Disney Company spent US$1 billion on a one-third stake in BAMTECH. Then in August 2017, Disney announced an acceleration of its investment timetable to become a majority owner of the company, spending a further US$1.58 billion to take its shareholding to 75 per cent

As a result, BAMTECH’s platform will support a much-discussed new digital service for US pay-TV leader ESPN, which is looking to arrest a long-term decline in subscriber numbers brought about by trends like ‘cord-cutting’, younger viewers’ disinclination towards ever buying a cable package, and a preference for TV bundles that are lighter on the pocket. More tellingly, with Disney pulling its multiverse of films and programming from Netflix, BAMTECH will also build a new entertainment service for the House of Mouse. 

It is an arrangement that completes the journey from a small unit trying to create websites for baseball teams in the early days of the 21st century to one of the most influential architects of the OTT age. It also means that now, people will see BAMTECH coming.  

In November 2016, it set out right across the Atlantic. A joint venture with another global media giant, Discovery, led to the establishment of BAMTECH Europe. Discovery-owned Eurosport would be the new entity’s first client. For Bill Martens (above), the former MLBAM senior vice president of partner solutions who was installed as BAMTECH Europe’s first managing director, the move was a chance to cement a burgeoning international reputation. 

“Most of our business has been US-focused in terms of our clients,” he says, speaking to SportsPro at the Sportel Convention in Monaco in October. “However, we’ve been distributing content globally for many years. A lot of people don’t know that about us, but we operate today in over 200 countries, supporting global brands like WWE Network, which is distributed globally, and NHL, which is distributed in most of the world, with a few exceptions. 

“So we’ve been supporting products on a global basis until now but we haven’t had an actual operation outside the US, so that’s a big part of our expansion plan: to get closer to our clients and be able to support them within Europe. We believe there’s a lot of opportunity within Europe, so that was our first foray internationally.” 

Investment from Disney, Martens says, has helped BAMTECH to “accelerate our expansion efforts”. 

He adds: “For example, there’s a lot of upfront capital expenditure when you’re expanding globally and building out data centres and other infrastructure for video processing and transmission.”

As far as BAMTECH Europe is concerned, however, Martens “can’t imagine a better strategic partner in the region than Discovery”. Together, the two partners have helped to establish the organisation on European soil – literally. 

“We opened our Amsterdam headquarters in August and we’ve been ramping up there with local talent that will support technical infrastructure, media operations, client services and application development,” says Martens. “It was important for us to be close to our clients, to be operating in the same time zone, have our expertise on the ground, familiarity with some of the markets in Europe, etc.

“Secondly, we’ve just completed building out our first Europe-based transmission operation centre. That is housed within our Amsterdam headquarters as well, and that was purpose-built to support all of our European clients from a media operations perspective.”

BAMTECH Europe's founding client is Eurosport, which is aggressively pushing its OTT service, Eurosport Player, across 69 territories 

According to Martens – who also spoke under the Chatham House rule at the inaugural SportsPro OTT Summit in November – those facilities were put together “on a pretty short timeline” once the tie-up with Discovery was confirmed. “But that’s not atypical for BAMTECH Media,” he explains. “We’ve learned how to work fast. We’re very pleased with how far we’ve come in a relatively short amount of time.”

Having a physical site in the region, Martens says, helps the nascent operation “in a variety of ways”. 

“Obviously, there are specific rules and regulations around user data and issues of that we need to understand and adhere to,” he explains. “Additionally, from a media operations perspective, having a local transmission centre operating on Central European Time improves our ability to provide 24/7 support for all our global partners. 

We believe there’s a lot of opportunity within Europe, so that was our first foray internationally.

“Being close to the client, understanding their needs and objectives, both from a physical proximity perspective and also understanding the culture and how companies do business, and how that differs market by market, is also very helpful.”

Soon, BAMTECH Europe will be able to point to a signature piece of work that will underscore its arrival. Over the past year the Eurosport Player, a digital live and on-demand video service, has been transplanted over to the BAMTECH platform. “We’re now in 69 different territories, supporting 14 different languages and six different currencies,” Martens says. 

That infrastructure has been put in place ahead of the most ambitious project in Eurosport’s history, and one to rank alongside Wrestlemania and season finales of Game of Thrones among the most complex undertakings executed so far by BAMTECH. In February, Eurosport will begin in earnest a six-year stint as the lead broadcaster of the Olympic Games in 50 territories – the entire continent, except for Russia. And both Discovery and Eurosport are determined to put digital at the heart of their delivery of PyeongChang 2018.

Every minute of the Winter Olympics will be shown live on the Eurosport Player, including practice sessions, which means as many as 20 streams could be operational at once. With Discovery Communications chief executive David Zaslav demanding a continued pivot to direct-to-consumer video and OTT in order to offset declining revenues in the global pay-TV sector, new metrics have been developed for the Games that more satisfactorily measure digital consumption. That in turn will interest the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which knows it must prove its case that new media engagement is rising as old media viewership falls. 

​Two and a half years after its stunning €1.3 billion IOC coup, PyeongChang 2018 is Eurosport’s biggest declaration yet of its new status under Discovery’s ownership. The impression its Eurosport Player makes on those fans who drift across from free-to-air partners, or from the content made available through digital partners like Snap Inc, could be pivotal. Martens will only say that BAMTECH Europe is “very excited” by the prospect of taking it on, but there is no doubting what a powerful statement the success of that project might be to potential clients. 

The identity of those clients, at the time of writing, is not yet clear, but Martens is open-minded about where they will come from. For one thing, he anticipates a similar mix of projects from sport and entertainment.  

“We’re known, certainly, for having many tier one partners,” he adds. “But our position is that we want to be foundational. Our belief is that, while there is a certain inevitability to the trends, content owners will need to be thoughtful about how they enter the market. We’re most interested in customers that are making a long-term investment in OTT.”

Martens’ own background is in news media. He spent ten years at CBS Interactive, serving as vice president and general manager of CBS News Digital and overseeing CBSN, the first 24-hour OTT news network. He is aware, in other words, of how profoundly digital distribution is changing industries with hitherto consecrated ways of working. Those changes, moreover, are global.

“There are a lot of trends that I think are similar in the US and in Europe,” Martens suggests. “Content owners are recognising the importance of building a foundation for a direct-to-consumer strategy – either now, or in the very near future. And there are a lot of reasons why that makes sense – one of which is to reach younger audiences, another of which is to leverage new technologies to deepen the relationship with their fans and their customers. 

“What I’ve found is that, particularly within the sports category, there’s a lot of recognition of BAMTECH Media’s capabilities and a lot of interest in adopting a more flexible approach to rights monetisation. For example, some content owners are looking at more of a hybrid model that would allow them to optimise revenue, gather more information directly about their fan and their customer, and also be in a position to react quickly to changes in the marketplace.”

With that in mind, analytics is an important area of development for BAMTECH Europe, one in which the company is “investing and building out our capabilities” as it seeks to refine solutions that can help power personalisation and all of the targeted communications that come with it. Studio-grade DRM is another element that Martens sees as increasingly critical for rights holders in sport, who are learning from their counterparts in entertainment of the need “to better protect their content as they make more of it available on digital platforms”.

BAMTECH's roots are as part of the in-house company supplying digital services to MLB but it was a 2015 deal with the NHL that transformed its outlook

Martens does not expect every new innovation to take root in the short term and also accepts that “there may be marketing tactics that are effective in some markets but not in other markets, for cultural reasons or otherwise”. Nevertheless, he still believes the potential of OTT is yet to be fully appreciated by some within sport.  

“The stream itself, while incredibly important, is just the start,” he says. “The beauty of digital platforms is you can build a much deeper, richer experience around the content. One of the things that MLBAM is known for, historically, is the ability to ingest and normalise sports data, and then to create visualisations of that data that drive a deeper viewing experience for the user. So, for example, features like milestones which can be laid over an actual live event which allow a user to go back and forth in an event around key moments. Things of that nature just provide a very different user experience from what many consumers have seen in the past on television.”

However the market evolves, one thing Martens is keen to underline is that BAMTECH’s commitment to experiment in keeping up with those changes will survive the relocation. “I think that’s part of our DNA,” he says. “The partners that we work with are generally very committed to OTT. They’re making massive investments in content and they’re committed to delivering content at scale directly to consumers. As a general rule, those clients always want to be experimenting and discovering ways to improve monetisation of the content, improve the user experience, and to ensure that they have the marketing tools to drive subscriptions and minimise churn. 

Our belief is that, while there is a certain inevitability to the trends, content owners will need to be thoughtful about how they enter the market. We’re most interested in customers that are making a long-term investment in OTT.

“If you look at the underlying technology of the platform, it was initially developed based on the requirements of MLB.tv but after that, based on the requirements of our partners. They’ve really driven a lot of the innovation on our platform, and we have a lot of very smart, technical people at BAMTECH Media who are also constantly adding value. I think it’s what has led to our success, and it’s something that we’ll make a point of continuing as we go forward.”

BAMTECH’s own future will be one of transition over the next few years as it moves away from its origins. Bob Bowman, who has guided baseball’s digital project for 17 years, confirmed in November that he would step down from his role as president of business and media at MLB at the end of 2017. It is, he said on announcing his departure, “an ideal time for new leadership”. 

At BAMTECH, that leadership will be provided on a global level by former Amazon Video executive Michael Paull, who joined as chief executive in February. But it will be the influence of the new majority owner that will be watched most carefully. 

“With respect to Disney,” says Martens, “we’re thrilled to be supporting more of Disney’s products on the platform, including the multi-sports service that we’re going to be launching in 2018. We’re not ready to talk in too much detail about that relationship yet. 

BAMTECH's digital rights deal with the NHL is worth a reported US$200 million annually 

“But I would say, overall, that it’s business as usual from our perspective, so we’ll continue to support all of our clients, including the products that Disney moves over to the platform. We think it’s critically important to be in the technology services business. The best in class technology that we have today will continue to evolve and will be available not only to Disney but to all of our other clients as well.”  

Under Martens’ watch, the opportunity now exists to build BAMTECH’s own network in the years to come.

“Near-term – 2018 – localisation will be a priority and operational expansion in Europe to better support all of our clients on a global basis,” Martens says. “In addition, we will build on the work that we’ve done with Eurosport Player. The Olympics is a huge event for Discovery and for BAMTECH Media, so we’re focused right now on putting the right plan in place to deliver the best possible streaming experience to the Eurosport Player audience. 

“Over time, the goal is really to build out a technology services business that looks very similar to what we’ve built in the US. So, working with the premium brands and with rights owners that are really committed to a long-term strategy around OTT, and continuing to provide them with best-in-breed technology to support all of those efforts.”