(Bloomberg) -- The virtual strike zone has been a feature of televised baseball games for almost two decades. The graphical overlay shows viewers in real time whether a pitch is too high, too low, or just nicks the corner with a backdoor slider.
Its use in all 30 Major League Baseball parks since 2008 has even spurred debate about the role of human umpires as computerized systems become more accurate and consistent.
But a brawl over the ownership of the technology threatens to make those graphics disappear from TV screens through 2022.
A week after 2018’s Opening Day, SportsMedia Technology Corp. sued MLB Advanced Media for patent infringement and trade-secret theft, claiming Major League Baseball’s digital media arm poached a senior manager, violated a contract and stole technology to create rival strike-zone and pitch-location graphics.
In a complaint in which SportsMedia summarizes its claims under the headings “Strike One,” “Strike Two” and “Strike Three,” the company, known as SMT, seeks unspecified money damages and a ruling blocking Advanced Media from using its patent. That, in turn, might force Advanced Media to seek a new licensing deal for what are now need-to-have graphics -- or to develop a new version from scratch.
MLB broadcasts "will look very different without SMT’s pitch location and strike-zone graphics," Gerard Hall, SportsMedia’s chief executive officer, told Kenny Gersh, Advanced Media’s executive vice president of business, on Feb. 21, 2017, as the dispute began to flare, according to court papers.
Michael Teevan, MLB’s vice president of communications, declined to comment on the case in Manhattan federal court. Advanced Media has yet to respond to the allegations.
Even those who aren’t baseball fans have encountered innovations by engineers from Sportvision, now a unit of SportsMedia. They created the virtual glowing hockey puck, introduced in 1996 under the name FoxTrax. (That was quietly laid to rest after the 1997-98 National Hockey League season when Fox lost its broadcast rights to ABC.) Sportvision is also behind the yellow virtual 1st-and-10 line on televised football games, which debuted in 1998.
The virtual ads behind home plate? The pointers identifying NASCAR drivers and their speeds? The SimulCam, which superimposes one athlete’s performance over that of a competitor, creating the illusion of, say, a head-to-head battle between Olympic alpine skiers?
Sportvision created them all.
The dispute with MLB Advance Media has its roots in SportsMedia’s 2016 acquisition of Sportvision. For the $25 million price tag, SportsMedia got Sportvision’s portfolio of patents that included the ubiquitous on-screen strike-zone graphic.
Within two hours of the closing of the deal, though, Ryan Zander, Sportvision’s general manager of baseball products, quit and took a job with Advanced Media, according to the complaint. About 2 1/2 months later, Zander told Sportvision that Advanced Media would stop using Sportvision’s PITCHf/x tracking system.
The PITCHf/x system uses multiple cameras to track the entire path of a pitched ball, gathering its location, angle, amount of break, and speed as the ball crosses home plate. In a rival system that went into effect for the 2017 season, Advanced Media bypassed the multiple camera protection by using radar, but it couldn’t get away from infringing elements of the patent on the graphic, SportsMedia said.
With that, at least $3 million SportsMedia had expected to earn in each of the three seasons remaining in its contract vanished.
According to the complaint, Zander was poached for his knowledge in developing and deploying an in-house system to replace PITCHf/x. His help allowed Advanced Media to "‘leap-frog’ over the challenges and technical hurdles" Sportvision spent years solving, the company said.
When the 2017 season began, broadcasts looked almost identical to those from the previous season. When each pitch crossed the front of home plate, it left in its televised wake a small dot, along with the speed, in relation to the virtual strike zone. In replays, a colorful trail would trace a pitch’s path.
The most visible difference was in the branding: PITCHf/x had become PITCHcast.
"I abhor lawsuits," Hall said in an interview. "This is such an inefficient use of capital. But at the same time, if SMT as a company is not prepared to defend its contracts, defend its patents, defend its trade secrets, then who are we as a company?"
It’s possible the patent in dispute could one day play a part in the implementation of an automated strike zone. There’s an air of inevitability among non-traditionalists that a tracking system, whether relying on cameras or radar, will one day play a part in strike-calling.
In July 2015, PITCHf/x became the first computerized system whose called balls and strikes counted in a professional game’s box score. The independent minor-league San Rafael Pacifics beat the Vallejo Admirals as former major-leaguer Eric Byrnes, now an analyst on the MLB Network, relayed the PITCHf/x call to fans through the public-address system.
Daniel Kaufman, who negotiated collective bargaining agreements for the MLB umpires’ union in 2009-10, foresees some degree of strike-zone automation, "but I don’t think it’s anytime soon.”
“I also don’t think you’ll ever see the game played without umpires entirely,” added Kaufman, managing director of SportTechie.
An automated strike zone "really is not our focus," Hall said. But "if that ever happens, we certainly feel like SMT should be at the epicenter of a system that does that.”
He nows await MLBAM’s response to the lawsuit, due June 27, after which a judge will likely schedule a hearing.
"I think from a fan’s perspective, this is a pretty damn important feature for how baseball fans consume the sport, either in the digital apps or the broadcast apps," Hall said. "The idea that that’s somehow in contention now, I think people are going to have an interest in where this goes."
The case is Sportvision Inc. v. MLB Advanced Media LP, 18-cv-03025, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
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