April 9, 2019

EPL FREE KICKS: Should fans be concerned about EPL’s move to DAZN?

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

Fans of the Premier League are about to be riding a wave into the future next season – for better or worse.

As we reported back in December, DAZN and Premier League have reached a deal for the streaming service to become the exclusive broadcaster of the EPL in Canada. The three-year pact was officially announced last week.

The move from traditional TV is one that will turn many off, but is a reality of where the TV industry is going these days and DAZN has managed to be at the forefront of it.

While we raised several concerns about the impact of this move on both fans of the sport and the growth of the league in Canada, neither seem to trouble the streaming service.

“I believe that if the Premier League was concerned about this, they would not have done the deal with us,” said Norm Lem, a senior VP at DAZN Canada. “We are both looking forward to working with each other for the next three seasons and delivering the league’s rich roster of European soccer including all 380 matches.

“We see this as an opportunity to truly engage and serve soccer fans who, in the past, have had to subscribe to so many different cable packages and services to try and cobble together full access to the sport they love.”

There certainly is an appeal to having every game under one roof and, when you consider that Sportsnet World – home of 170 of this season’s 380 EPL games – costs the same price as a subscription to DAZN at $19.99 per month, the hit to your wallet isn’t actually that bad.

The biggest concern, raised by several readers, is that Internet service in Canada can be spotty in some areas, too expensive in others or both.

“I would suggest (EPL fans) talk to their ISP as more and more services are launching every day or converting to a streaming-focused model due to the prohibitive costs of traditional entertainment packages. We also know many Canadians don’t have cable these days and cord-cutting is a major trend. As cord-cutting continues, Internet Service Providers will need to upgrade to meet this new demand.”

Of course, there is some irony about DAZN asking you to contact Bell or Rogers about improving their Internet coverage so that you can watch a product that they lost, but that’s just where we are these days.

As for fans that are unfamiliar with DAZN or even streaming services in general, Lem says the company is working on educating fans – especially those in older demographics.

“We are gearing up for our August kick-off date and will make sure we can deliver to all Canadian fans. We recognize that there is a group of soccer fans who may not be familiar or comfortable with streaming services overall and we will be actively pushing education campaigns and information on how easy it is to sign up and use DAZN,” Lem said.

“Ultimately the content will convince them to come aboard, so we just want to make it easier for them to do so and let them know that with DAZN there is no off-season.”

For what it’s worth, Bell, owner of TSN, wouldn’t comment on the DAZN deal, only releasing a statement saying that TSN “continues to deliver an expansive schedule of soccer coverage as part of the network’s lineup of 60+ championship events.”

And if you think that this is it for DAZN and bringing other sports properties to its service, you’re wrong.

“DAZN certainly has ambitions to be a multi-sport player in Canada and is always looking at ways to expand our offering for our Canadian fans,” Lem said. “You’ll just have to keep an eye on us to find out.”

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

It’s not quite the run that he went on during Leicester’s championship season three years ago, but Jamie Vardy is certainly on a fine run of form.

The Foxes striker scored twice and picked up an assist against relegated Huddersfield Town. That gives Vardy six goals and two assists in the past five games.

Perhaps coincidentally, former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has been in charge of Leicester for the past five games.

While it is entirely possible that we’re seeing a new manager bump, the fixtures have also been friendly for the Foxes, having not faced a top-six side in the past seven games.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Speaking of Leicester, midfielder Youri Tielemans has been excellent since joining the team on loan from Monaco. But his strong play could be putting the Foxes in a bind: The better he plays, the more he’ll cost to buy this summer … With this past week being a spot where some makeup games for postponed fixtures were being played, we had EPL action every day of the week except Thursday. Now, some people love it, some people hate it, but can we all just agree that it makes no sense when there are just three games played on a Saturday in that case? … Referee Mike Dean gave out his 100th red card this week after showing Ashley Young his second yellow. Quite the milestone for a ref that draws a lot of ire from fans … Fulham spent 112 million euros on players this season, the most by any team to ever be relegated .. If this is Eden Hazard’s farewell tour from Chelsea, he’s doing a good job of reminding people what he can do when he’s in form. His first goal against West Ham on Monday came after a marvelous run.

THE LAST WORD

Watford and Wolves put on a semifinal worthy of its billing.

After falling behind 2-0, the Hornets bounced back to tie the game and eventually won it in extra time. It was the type of thrilling game that makes even casual fans stand up and cheer.

And when you consider that these are two midtable teams hoping to make the FA Cup final and have a rare chance at some silverware, you can see why they were competing so hard.

Had nothing been on the line, we probably wouldn’t have seen Jose Holebas try to play through a hamstring injury before being subbed off. We wouldn’t have had the electric atmosphere at the West London stadium with more than 80,000 fans in attendance.

They call it the “Magic of the Cup” for a reason and that was certainly on display.

Whether Watford can pull the giant upset and conquer Manchester City when the two teams reconvene at Wembley in mid-May remains to be seen. But we have a feeling that the fans will be behind the team in yellow and black.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

April 2, 2019

EPL FREE KICKS: The Terriers have been put down, now who’s next?

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

We’ve talked about the title race, the chase for spots in Europe and the increasingly interesting midtable battle — which now features five teams separated by two points fighting for seventh place.

But what about the life-and-death battle at the bottom of the table?

This weekend we saw the first team fall victim to the harsh reality of relegation: Huddersfield Town will be plying its trade in the Championship next season.

The Terriers tied the record for earliest relegation, clinching their demotion with six games remaining. The team whose record it tied, Derby in 2007-08, was actually the worst side in Premier League history, collecting just 11 points with a -69 goal differential. At least with 14 points and six games to play, Huddersfield at least has a chance to salvage some dignity and avoid being included on lists of ignominy.

The next team bound for relegation is Fulham, which sits in 19th and is a whopping 16 points from safety. With only 18 points available from their remaining six games, the Cottagers are a safe bet to be sent down — a real shame, too, after seeing owner Shad Kahn splash some serious cash back in the summer.

Now, here’s where the real race for safety comes in: Just five points above 18th-place Cardiff City are three teams sitting on 33 points. Any of Brighton & Hove Albion, Southampton or Burnley could hit a rough patch and see themselves slide into that relegation spot.

The numbers to look at here are the games remaining, though. Burnley is worst off, having played 32, while Cardiff and Southampton have a game in hand and Brighton has two. The Bluebirds, though, have one big number working against them in their fight to climb out of 18th: Minus-31. That goal differential is nine worse than Burnley’s number and well behind the other two sides. As for remaining fixtures, we will see Cardiff kickoff against Burnley and Brighton over the span of three days this month, making for some incredibly compelling, drama-charged football.

If we were guessing, it seems most likely that Cardiff returns to the second-tier, destined to continuing on as a yo-yo team, but as they say, “that’s why they play the games.”

As for the Terriers, what happens next? Several players will likely be on the move, but their biggest asset is Aaron Mooy. He should bring in a tidy transfer fee and has shown the class it takes to run a midfield in the Premier League. We should see some midtable teams lining up bids for the Aussie.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

There weren’t a lot of standout performances to choose from this past weekend, so it’s fitting to honour a player that has been steady through the season, but also came up big.

Bernardo Silva doesn’t get a lot of headlines for what he does for title-chasing Manchester City, but he’s a key part of the team. The Portuguese midfielder is tough to outwork and is smart with the ball. With a goal and an assist against Fulham, that give him six and eight, respectively, on the season.

He is one of few City players to play in almost every game this season, either as a starter or sub, missing just one contest. Silva won’t get many votes for team of the season, but City would be much worse off without him.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

If you’re ever in a debate over who’s the best Premier League striker ever, be careful if you’re arguing in favour of Thierry Henry over Sergio Aguero. With his goal this weekend, Kun now 228 goals in 328 games – the same amount the Frenchman had, but in 48 fewer games … We’re not sure it will matter in the end, but Cardiff fans should be very bitter about Cesar Azpilicueta’s goal standing up, despite the fact that he was clearly offside. Next year, with VAR in action, that’s an easy overturn … That own goal in injury time to lose the game against Liverpool is just one of those classic examples of “Spurs being Spurs.” Tottenham now has just one point from the past five games and is quickly falling down the table. If you don’t think Arsenal is thrilled to have the upper hand against its rival again, you’re kidding yourself … The Gunners have no matched their point total from last season and still have seven games to play. A nice turnaround form Arsene Wenger’s final season … Gerard Deulofeu had a pretty funny wardrobe malfunction against United. The poor Spaniard was forced to have his black leggings cut off because they didn’t match the team’s green kit … If you think that you’re going to get anything different from Newcastle under Rafa Benitez, you’re very wrong. Compare the stats from last year to now through 31 games and there’s very little difference. In terms of shots, shot conversion rate, passing accuracy, possession, shots faced, expected goals, expected goals against and distance travelled, they’re all within marginal amounts of each other … It’s that time of year again when transfer rumours start popping up. The big one this week: Paul Pogba to Real Madrid. The United midfielder praised Zinedine Zidane and the feeling seems to be mutual. The Red Devils have a history of selling their stars to Madrid, so we won’t rule it out, but finding a replacement would be tough.

THE LAST WORD

In a title race this tight, any little error could cost a team the championship.

But let’s not go about saying that if and when that happens, that either Liverpool or Manchester City bottled it.

In reality, Liverpool — which sits first in the Premier League by two points, but City has a game in hand — is on pace to have the fourth-best season in league history. City could reach 98 points, only two behind last year’s record haul of 100.

So, we could see both teams win out and have the team with the fourth-best season in Premier League history finish in second. That’s just the kind of craziness we have come to expect in the world these days.

Let’s just remember that when placing blame at the feet of the excellent side that will inevitably finish as runner-up.

Although, there might not be much worse if it turns out to be Liverpool, after the long wait its fanbase has been through,

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

March 31, 2019

MLB 2019 PREVIEW: Who’s winning, who’s losing and using abusing the system?

by Dan Bilicki In: Baseball

There seems to be a divide in Major League Baseball, but it’s not one that we usually notice.

It’s not about the standings – who’s trying to contend and who’s tanking into a rebuild – and it’s not about analytics – who’s going all-in and who’s using an old-school approach.

It’s about money, but it’s also not about who’s spending and who’s not. Well, kind of.

It’s about how teams are treating their high-end prospects and who is abusing a loophole in service time.

Thanks to some language in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, prospects that are on a big-league roster for less than a certain amount of time in a season won’t have it count towards their countdown to being arbitration eligible and closer to a payday.

So, every year, we see some of the best prospects start the season in triple-A, only to be called up in mid-April or slightly after that.

This season, we’re seeing it in Toronto with Vlad Guerrero Jr. (though he is very conveniently rehabbing a minor injury) and Cincinnati with Nick Senzel.

But, in a change of course, we’re also seeing teams eschew that strategy and get in the good books with their potential future superstars. The Mets started the season with Peter Alonso in the lineup while the White Sox have already signed Eloy Jimenez to a big, long-term deal. San Diego has been especially great with prospects, starting the season with Fernando Tatis Jr. and other youngsters on the roster.

Don’t think that guys will forget about this when free agency arrives. How willing would you be to give a “hometown discount” if your team actively tried to screw you out of money?

Regardless of what teams are doing to manipulate service time, there needs to be a change made in that section of the CBA. There’s no reason that guys that truly ready like Vlad (unless his injury is legit) and Senzel shouldn’t be with their big clubs. It should be all about putting out your best 25-man roster because, in the end, what’s “best for business” now could hurt a team at the box office now and in payroll later on, when the stars want to recoup what they lost.

As for the 2019 season, here’s what we see happening.

AL EAST: Boston Red Sox

AL CENTRAL: Cleveland Indians

AL WEST: Houston Astros

AL WILDCARDS: N.Y. Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays

AL MVP: Mike Trout, LAA

AL CY YOUNG: Gerrit Cole, HOU

NL EAST: Washington Nationals

NL CENTRAL: Milwaukee Brewers

NL WEST: Colorado Rockies

NL WILDCARDS: Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis

NL MVP: Nolan Arenado, COL

NL CY YOUNG: Max Scherzer, WAS

ALCS: Boston over Houston

NLCS: Milwaukee over Colorado

WORLD SERIES: Boston over Milwaukee

WORST TEAM: Baltimore Orioles

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