There aren’t many commonalities between baseball and hockey, besides using wooden sticks to score, guys with catching gloves in crouching stances and the legacy of Tom Glavine.
There are many commonalities between Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League, insofar that the two organizations are a disparate collection of franchises who aim to maximize profits and squeeze every bit of potential and potential revenue from every stream they can locate.
One place where MLB has thrived: In digital media, to the point where MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM, or BAM) has become a gold-standard organization when it comes to online content and streaming. It works with ESPN, WWE and HBO on their digital platforms. And now, thanks to a six-year deal announced this month, it works with the NHL.
“Over the last year, we were in the digital market place deciding what we wanted to do next, looking at all of our options. [NHL COO] John Collins and I and [MLB Commissioner] Rob [Manfred] and [MLBAM President] and CEO Bob [Bowman] and I shared a vision that together two sports could do more, be more and have more possibilities than one,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
It’s a blockbuster deal: MLBAM is paying $100 million annually for the rights to all the NHL’s digital platforms, and the NHL gets up to 10 percent in equity in MLBAM.
But the deal left a lot of questions for hockey fans. We tried to address some of them with Collins, the NHL’s driving force behind this deal and other innovations.
Here’s our chat with Collins this week. Enjoy!
Q. The most prominent question on a lot of fans’ minds: What does this deal mean for the access we have to NHL footage, and using that footage to create new media in the digital landscape?
MLB is notorious for cracking down on everything from Vines to podcasts; the NHL has been, perhaps, the most hands-off League when it comes to fan-created media like YouTube clips and GIFs. Do you anticipate the same level of access for hockey fans, that same “hands-off” nature to continue in this deal?
COLLINS: We’re two leagues. We both have different regulations, different ways that we approach the business. So a lot of the conversations that we had with Bob were, mostly from a club standpoint, that we can’t rollback. We can’t take things away. We have to build on what’s already there. And most of those conversations were about highlights, and what we do with highlights.
Look, MLB has been possibly more diligent about how to really turn the whole technology and new media space into a viable business than I think almost anybody. But still, it’s not like the NHL is just adopting MLB’s practices on how to do these things.
There are certain things that they’re paying us a rights fee for where they need to be able to run the business. That’s mostly around the subscription products, and then highlights and then advertising and how we generate more traffic and commercial opportunities. What it comes down to is how we make it better for the fans.
That said, we haven’t gotten to that level of conversation yet with MLB because we’re still trying to figure out what products are going to be available when. We haven’t even met with the clubs [about this deal] yet.
But it doesn’t sound like fans making Vines and GIFs from games is a problem for the NHL.
It’s not a problem, but obviously it’s something that we’ve not yet focused on [with MLB]. There’s a lot of work to be done - they’re taking over the NHL Network and getting it up and running in October.
A lot of fans are curious about the plans for the NHL Network. What are the near-term changes for the network, for 2015-16?
We’re going to have new sets, and they’re going to be here in New York [i.e. Secaucus, NJ] rather than in Toronto. It’s a building that was built out for MSNBC but MLB took it over and they’re great facilities. We’re going to have three sets: The set in the NHL Store in Manhattan, where we do NHL Live and make the Player Safety videos; and then two sets out in Secaucus. So we’ll have better sets.
The second thing will be the impact on talent. There’s different talent available in New York than there is in Toronto. There’s going to be more of an opportunity for some of the regional guys that are coming through in the New York area to be part of it. An opportunity to see some old friend like Kathryn Tappen, who’s with NBC now. We used her last year on NHL Network a little, but she couldn’t really commute between New York and Toronto. There’s also interest from some of the other NBC guys and we’d love to have them.
So maybe a bit more of a rotating cast of analysts than in the previous incarnation of NHL Network?
Yeah, I think that’s right.
I’ve heard that this season on NHL Network, we’re going to have the same types of programs we’ve had in previous years, but that the MLB produced shows are coming in 2016-17. Accurate?
Because we’ll be up and running for the season, I think they’ll focus on the tentpole anchor shows. You have On The Fly, which is on when you don’t have games on NHLN. It’s the live look-in studio based show like NFL RedZone. That show’s a staple.
MLB likes the idea of a national pregame show, and that’s going to be NHL Live, which we’re going to continue out of the NHL Store studio.
And we think a necessity is NHL Tonight, the daily postgame show, which is really the only place you can go to get that. And that’ll be out of Secaucus.
And then we’ll figure out what we do.
One problem for NHL Network has been carriage. MLB and the NFL networks are usually on a more basic, available cable tier than the NHL. Could that change with this new deal?
We both hope that there is some opportunity to expand carriage.
MLB is famous for having packaged their out of market PPV service, Extra Innings, with their digital out of market streaming service. Currently, the NHL doesn’t offer a way for fans to guy both Center Ice and GameCenter Live in one package; will that change?
Baseball has done some things in combining the streaming product with the linear out of market product. That seems to be something that the cable companies like and that the fans like. I don’t think that’s something we’ll see this season, as it’s too close to the season launch, but it could come into play in the future. It’s worked for baseball.
I know MLB is doing an overhaul of team websites; does that include NHL.com? And is there an editorial impact?
NHL.com will be revamped for January. We’re still responsible for the editorial. We’ll work closely with the MLB to figure out how we pull resources, but we’re still responsible for editorial.
BAM is best in class when it comes to digital technology and how to run a business. That allows us to focus on what we do best, which is content, and how to better connect with the fans and give them what they want. So we’ll have a chance to significantly expand our editorial. I think you’ll see more writers, more personalities, more integration between talent on the digital sites and the network.
We’re also going to staff up more on the international NHL sites, connecting a foreign fan with their favorite players. We have to do a better job of serving all fans, but the European fan in particular.
Q. You guys just announced an extension for NHL Network Radio on Sirius XM. Does BAM have any oversight of that station now? What are your plans for it?
No … but we’re going to have a lot more editorial input into that channel. We’ll work with the Sirius guys who are the best in producing radio.
But as far as what’s the news of the day or what the editorial focus should be, or the access to our clubs or who’s making the news, or who’s the right on-air talent that has the right kind of perspective … when you tune into the NHL channel on Sirius, you expect it to be a legitimate news source and offer the kind of access that the League can offer fans on the NHL Network. And I don’t think we’ve done that in the past.
It’s been produced with the Sirius guys, at arm’s length from us, and I think now it’s going to be more of a collaboration.
Q. What’s the one thing that had you the giddiest about this partnership with MLB?
The value for our ownership is always important. And having equity in BAM tech - and coming out of the owners’ meeting [this week], it sounds like it’s a little clearer path for what baseball wants to do - it’s exciting to be a part of that. That’s $500 million in equity. And I think that’ll grow.
But what’s exciting beyond that is the technology focus that they have. The product focus that they have. It’s a good culture fit. They’re like our cousins: They know the family, know what the family battles are, they’ve worked through them in baseball and they’ll work through them here.
They’re a machine. We talk about the traffic they generate for their products, and that’s where we want to be.
Thanks to John Collins and the NHL for the time.
A lot of products won’t be “transitioned over” until January of the 2015-16 season, according to Collins. That means new team websites, Game Center Live, work on the NHL app and other facets of the MLB makeover of NHL digital properties.
The transition for the NHL includes up to 60 employees shifting over to work with MLBAM on the digital transformation. And lest anyone worry about a culture clash between the sports, Collins said there are a good number of hockey fans in the MLBAM ranks and many that worked with the NHL, including Josh Bernstein, the head of production, who used to work for the New York Islanders.
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