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Volume 23 No. 24
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NHL aims to draft off BAM Tech’s success

NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins has long thought about what it might look like if different leagues came together for media deals. With almost a decade spent at the NHL and years before that with the NFL, Collins has often discussed such ideas with executives at the forefront of the digital media space, including MLB Advanced Media CEO Bob Bowman.

But when the league last year began to review its digital and streaming services deal with NeuLion, an agreement set to expire next month, the first thought was to largely stay the course. It issued a request for proposal, and ultimately held discussions with a host of companies aiming to serve as a traditional digital services vendor for the league.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (left) and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announce the partnership.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
As the proposals were reviewed, however, league officials also continued to talk about how they could best serve their audience in a changing, expanding media landscape. How could the league better leverage its digital assets to provide more and better content?

It was in that larger media context that new possibilities were discussed. Could the likes of YouTube or Google provide a platform for a broad new package? Could Comcast, with its ongoing 10-year broadcast rights deal through NBC, give the NHL a wider set of services?

The culmination of that process came last week, when the NHL formally announced a six-year deal with MLBAM to have baseball’s digital arm manage the NHL’s digital properties, including NHL.com, the websites of its 30 teams and its streaming platform GameCenter Live, along with NHL Network.

“We have a global ambition — with the launch of the World Cup of Hockey and our centennial next year — and a global vision to connect with our fans and get them closer to the game,” said Collins, speaking after the announcement of the deal. “From an organizational standpoint, this deal allows us to do just that.”

Collins also praised MLBAM’s understanding of how to work with 30 teams across a league.

The deal is a financial boon for the NHL. MLBAM will pay the league $100 million annually in rights fees, the first time it has done so with any property. The NHL also will receive a 7 percent to 10 percent stake in BAM Tech, the newly named arm of MLBAM that services streaming-video clients including ESPN, HBO and WWE. That tech-focused offshoot has revenue upward of $100 million a year and is growing at a double-digit pace. The deal additionally will provide the NHL with approximately $20 million a year in cost savings related to previously operating its digital business.

Officially, the deal stars Jan. 1, but the reality is the work begins now. The first project in focus will be NHL Network. The network, previously split between Toronto and New York, now will be based out of the same Secaucus, N.J., studios as MLB Network and will be overseen by MLB Network President Rob McGlarry. MLBAM and the NHL will work together on all aspects of talent and programming for the network, including creating enhanced touch points with the teams. Two new sets will also be built out at the studios specifically for the NHL Network.

Looking to build upon MLBAM’s success with the MLB Network, the NHL is open to introducing new programming and content. However, the league also wants to strengthen what it sees as the three network pillars: “NHL Live,” “NHL On the Fly” and “NHL Tonight.”

“Whatever you see on opening night will be good, and whatever you see a month later will be better,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman during the press conference announcing the deal. “As we get through the season, it will be better yet.’

That change could affect about 60 NHL Network employees. While most will be given opportunities to work with MLBAM, some positions will be eliminated with the new structure.

As for NeuLion, which has worked with the NHL for seven years, it will work with the NHL and now MLBAM through the end of its deal and is negotiating the terms of a transition agreement to continue to work alongside the league on the run up to Jan. 1.

On the digital front, the deal will target NHL.com, team websites, mobile versions of those websites, and the league’s apps. For the main NHL app, there’s a desire to crib some of the in-game video-centered focus from MLB At-Bat. Bettman noted during last week’s press conference, also attended by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, that the league and its clubs would maintain editorial control and direction.

The increased focus on new technologies will also play to two elements tested by the NHL over the last year: player tracking systems and virtual dasherboard advertising.

The NHL tested a Sportvision tracking system during the 2015 All-Star Game using infrared cameras and tracking chips in pucks and computer chips in jerseys. The league now wants to use the experience of the MLBAM staff in using similar tracking elements during baseball games, as well as the integration of that data into digital applications. Testing will continue this season.

“One of the elements of the discussions we’ve had is to continue [the NHL]’s efforts in technology on the ice, and we’re going to use this next season, under the direction of the NHL and its owners, to test out various techniques on how to track the puck the best, the players the best, and other things we think fans want to know,” Bowman said. “With the work that we’ve done in baseball stadiums we’ll be able to broaden the reach, but we’re doing this together.”

Similarly, the NHL last preseason saw teams’ local broadcasters test a virtual advertising system for dashboards. The hope is that MLBAM can assist with further developments in this area as well.