SBJ/July 17 - 23, 2006/This Weeks News

NHL will centralize Web effort

The league wants to create a uniform look
for team Web sites, much like what
MLB has done for its teams through
MLB Advanced Media.
The NHL has begun a comprehensive effort to revamp NHL.com and the 30 individual team sites, with the league set to assume a far greater role in the look and operation for each of those online destinations.

Under a plan approved last month by the NHL board of governors, each of the team sites and NHL.com will have a uniform look, conceptually similar to the strategy employed by MLB Advanced Media for MLB.com and the baseball team sites. In addition, higher-end content such as video-on-demand will be aggregated and distributed through each of the league and team sites.

Some of the changes, including the new look to the sites, will be in place for the start of the 2006-07 regular season in October.

“The owners have approved a broad strategy that will redefine how we go forward with regard to our online presence,” said Bernadette Mansur, NHL senior vice president of communications. “That strategy is still being shaped and defined. But this is a huge, huge project we’re undertaking.”

More specific data on the digital reworking is expected to be sent to the clubs later this month, Mansur said. One element already announced is NHL Connect, which is described as a league-sponsored social networking environment.

One of the key elements still being developed is control of advertising inventory, which also holds perhaps the greatest potential for internal dispute. Currently, the individual clubs oversee nearly all the advertising on their sites. Under one proposal being developed, teams would retain local rights in two sponsorship categories of their choosing, with the league controlling the rest and pooling the revenue, according to an industry executive familiar with the effort. How that interfaces with the league’s attempts to sell both exclusive and non-exclusive ad buys across all the Web sites is also yet to be finalized.

“The question being asked by some people, particularly some of the bigger-market clubs, is whether this is the best way to maximize revenue given the more localized nature of hockey,” said a team executive who declined to be identified.

Editorial direction for the sites will remain controlled by the clubs, Mansur said.

“There will definitely be a local editorial voice on the sites,” she said.

More a dozen teams contacted by SportsBusiness Journal declined to comment on the online initiative. The apparent unease to discuss the nascent effort also recalls the early days of MLB Advanced Media, during which the effort to pool together online rights and revenue created a sizable culture shock for baseball team owners, even though they had long engaged in similar cooperative activities with regard to national TV, licensing and leaguewide sponsorship. MLBAM in barely a half-decade has since grown from virtually nothing into a $300 million per year colossus.

Still, industry sources said the board of governors’ vote to approve the new NHL online measure, while not unanimous, provided a strong mandate.

“As it relates to the standardizing the team Web sites, we are in support of the league’s initiative but have just begun to educate ourselves on the entire measure,” said Mike Altieri, Los Angeles Kings vice president of communications and broadcasting.

Other key issues related to the effort, such as staffing and potential impacts on league revenue and the collective-bargaining agreement with the players, are also being assessed.

According to industry sources, one of the key figures in the online effort is Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks, who also owns the Texas Rangers and is an MLB Advanced Media board member. Hicks was not available for comment last week.

Correspondent Allan Kreda contributed to this report.

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