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Volume 22 No. 28
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NHL tests virtual ads for dasherboards

The NHL is quietly testing virtual advertising technology that would allow broadcasters to replace ads on home team dasherboards with their own electronic signage.

What’s being referred to internally as “dynamic dasherboards” would allow more vibrant and pricey ad messages, including animation, as well as represent a new way to derive revenue from in-venue signage. It would allow for an “away” broadcaster to sell virtual ad inventory of an out-of-market venue to advertisers. So, for example, Boston’s NESN could sell dasherboard inventory for its coverage of when the Bruins play the Flyers at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

Supponor, a European company whose history dates to 2000, is testing its DBR (digital billboard replacement) virtual advertising system with the league — and it did so as recently as Oct. 3 at the Prudential Center in Newark. The system also has been tested at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn., home of the AHL Hartford Wolfpack.

Supponor has technology deals with several top European soccer leagues, including La Liga in Spain and Serie A in Italy. It has tested its technology with European hockey leagues but it’s not yet in use there commercially.

“In hockey, the things that pass in front of the boards are fast-moving and unpredictable,” said Supponor CEO Roger Hall. “That makes our job difficult, but we’ve done enough work on hockey in a testing mode that we feel the technology is more than robust enough.”

NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins stressed that the virtual ad play was still very much a test and that Supponor’s system could eventually be used by any of the league’s rights holders, not just “away” broadcasters.

“The technology isn’t perfect yet and clearly this is something that would require approval at the [board of governors] level,” Collins said. “We’re looking to find new revenue, and that makes this worth exploring for any of our broadcasters, whether it’s a Chicago broadcast from New York or a broadcast of a [Washington] Caps game to Russia, where they want to see Ovechkin [and the international feed could feature Russia-based advertisers].”

Added Supponor’s Hall, “We’re not to a point to say whether or not this product is able to be deployed commercially.”

Collins said that under an ideal scenario, if approved by ownership, the technology could be put in use as soon as the 2015-16 season, but he added that it could be tested at some of the NHL’s jewel events before then — like the All-Star Game, the Winter Classic or any of the outdoor games planned for this season.

The concept means extracting the maximum amount of revenue from the same dasherboards. However, as has been the case since virtual advertising technology started in the 1990s, the politics are far more complex than the technology, which is hardly insubstantial. Thorny questions of how the revenue would be split, and whether teams and venues — normally the sales agent for dasherboards — would be willing to split that revenue with broadcast rights holders, or vice versa, are paramount.

However, this is not an unprecedented situation for the NHL. League sponsors already get precedence over local deals when it comes to dasherboard signage on NBC and NBC Sports Network telecasts.

“There’s tremendous potential, but it’s a political situation,” said Andrew Judelson, senior vice president at IMG who led sales and marketing at the NHL from 1998 to 2006. “In the mid-90s, we thought virtual ads would change the economics of venue signage, which has happened to some extent in baseball. But it gets down to a control issue between venues and broadcasters over which one gets to control and monetize inventory. And while local sponsors are paying for the value in local signage and broadcasts, their expectations have always been that they will receive the benefits of their dasherboards on any broadcast, rebroadcast or highlights telecast.”

Collins said he’s been regularly briefing team presidents. The issue is expected to be discussed, if not voted upon, at the NHL board of governors meeting in December.

“I believe the politics can be worked through, but the technology is not perfected yet, and installing the system will take a significant capital investment,” Collins said. “We have to determine what kind of value and priority our clubs, broadcasters and sponsors put on this.”

Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment President and CEO Jeff Knapple said adoption by NHL teams will be an issue of big market versus small market, which was the issue that derailed the NBA’s recent jersey advertising discussions.

“You’ve already seen big-market teams, like the Yankees, sell venue signage to Japanese brands,” Knapple said. “There are about six clubs in big markets that matter in hockey, so if they can get them on board, that will sway the vote. … For the global soccer brands like Man U, it’s a compelling sell, but right now the technology’s cost is expensive. However, I applaud the experimentation. As the whole business gets more global, it makes more and more sense.”

Virtual advertising is used by 17 NHL teams in their broadcasts, with the league stipulating that it must appear above the dasherboards to prevent any conflicts. Most broadcasters sell virtual signage behind the goal, although the league does permit them to sell it above the dasherboards between the blue lines and end lines as well, according to Susan Cohig, the NHL’s senior vice president of integrated marketing.