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NHL’s Future Focus

We ask John Collins, chief operating officer of the National Hockey League, why he turned to a rival to help revamp the digital media output of his sport.

The puck has come to baseball. Well, at least within its digital technology world.

MLB Advanced Media, the digital technology company of Major League Baseball and provider of streamed digital content in sports, reached a six-year agreement with the NHL that both sides are calling historic.

In many ways, they are correct. For a combination of cash and equity – $600m in cash, and between seven and 10 per cent of equity in what will be a company spun into its own entity known as BAM Tech – MLBAM will handle all of the NHL’s digital and broadcast operations. That includes NHL Network; NHL GameCenter Live, with live streaming to apps of games throughout the league; and a variety of new programming.

While MLBAM pays $100m a year in rights fees, the NHL will have about a $300m share in BAM Tech.

“MLBAM is the industry leader,” John Collins, chief operating officer of the NHL, told SportBusiness International.

“When we studied the changing media landscape, we felt that having a world-class partner was in the best interests of our continued growth and in our commitment to our fans, who just can’t get enough of great content. “Look at what MLBAM has done not only with baseball, but also with HBO, the PGA Tour, and launching the WWE Network to a million fans. It’s also a great fit in terms of culture.

“We bring very complementary areas of expertise to the table. We have been doing digital content fairly well for eight-plus years. We know our fans and we know storytelling.

MLBAM brings a level of technical expertise that is unmatched. It’s a perfect fit.

"We can now give our fans a richer, more immersive experience.”

Trial and Error

In order to understand how this will be achieved, Bob Bowman, president and CEO of MLBAM (pictured right), revealed the upcoming season will be critical in helping to shape the vision of NHL’s technological future.

“There are lots of different ways to do it,” Bowman told SportBusiness International. “We are going to test them. One way is with cameras on the rinks – you can put cameras right there and track a lot of things.

“We’ve discussed options with them [NHL]. It’s our goal to gain enough knowledge during the 2015-16 season to figure out what is best. They’ve shown a willingness to consider other solutions, which may pay larger dividends in the long run.”

Collins said that MLBAM has the most expertise, so the NHL will rely on that knowledge, while Bowman stresses it will be a collective effort.

“We understand technology, we understand video and we understand distribution,” he said. “We won’t suggest we have better thoughts. We’re the first to recognise we’re the new folks on the block, and have a lot to learn [about ice hockey].”

MLBAM will be taking charge of the entire NHL broadcast operations that the league previously handled. That includes NHL Network and NHL Center Ice, which broadcasts games through an out-of-market subscription package.

The difference in quality of NHL Network programming compared to what the MLB provides its fans with, was the key reason for signing the partnership, according to Collins.

“The improvement of NHL Network will have a big impact on our fans,” said Collins, who admitted that specifics are still in the planning stages. “We are looking forward to beginning discussions on new products we can offer.

MLBAM has developed the top-selling sports app – MLB At Bat – and it’s exciting to think about the possibilities for new apps that our fans would love, and would help take them deeper into the game.”

Data Revolution

One key ingredient will be the use of StatCast, a MLBAM digital system that utilises radar and cameras to track players and their movements in real time and communicatte back to the fans.

The reason the StatCast model has been able to generate data that fans have not been able to access before is due to cameras being installed within the MLB ballparks, a tactic that would have to be replicated by the NHL if they wanted to go down the same route.

For long-time fans, the skyrocketing increase in analytics and statistics can be overwhelming, but it’s exactly what millennials seek – and millennials are exactly the audience United States-based sports enterprises are targeting.

While NHL teams provide a deep collection of such data during games (shots taken, shots blocked, time on ice, and so on), StatCast can take the information to another level. How effective was a player or an entire unit, such as the power play, while it was spending that time on the ice? Which area of the ice is Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin most dangerous? Where statistically is a goal tender strongest or weakest? Who is the fastest skater on the ice? Who has the hardest shot?

In-rink cameras can follow one player such as Ovechkin, or concentrate solely on the goalie. Viewing angles previously ignored or unavailable can ramp up the excitement.

MLBAM will leave the specifics up to the hockey people, but based on the offerings of the MLB At Bat app, it can statistically and analytically implement pretty much anything.

All of these developments and improvements benefit the fans, of course. Collins expects the partnership to lead to many new followers of the sport, which has traditionally ranked fourth behind the NFL (National Football League), MLB and NBA (National Basketball Association) in popularity in America, but whose Stanley Cup play-offs historically outdo its rivals for sustained drama and energy.

The agreement could also pay dividends for the players, who have a share in overall revenues. The more money coming in, the higher the salary cap.

FOCUS: MLBAM

Future movement towards new partners for MLBAM, led by president Bob Bowman, won’t exclusively be in the sports realm.

Among the current non-sporting client list is the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Network and HBO Now, and there’s a vast marketplace of other properties MLBAM could dive into.

Mega-events such as concerts are ripe for MLBAM’s expertise, having handled streaming for the five concerts of rock band Grateful Dead’s farewell tour this year.

The fact that popular artists ranging from rockers Bruce Springsteen and U2 to pop singer Taylor Swift and country singer Kenny Chesney could reach millions of fans – and make millions more new fans – through such live social media engagements has to be enticing. And lucrative.

Within the sports world, MLBAM has already had a strong presence since 2006 with college basketball’s March Madness tournament through broadcasters CBS and Turner. It also oversees ESPN3, an authenticated online model for programming not available on ESPN’s broadcast entities; users must validate being a subscriber to that specific service before they can access content.

Its recent agreement with the PGA Tour also opens up a myriad of possibilities. Currently, through the tour’s website, MLBAM is providing live streaming of the morning tournament rounds on Thursdays and Fridays. Considering that some of golf’s biggest stars don’t always make it to the weekend, such streamed presentations could be the only opportunity to watch them in any given event.

How MLBAM potentially gets involved can vary, from paying a production fee such as with the PGA Tour to paying a rights fee as with the NHL. Regardless, it is delivering never previously produced content.

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