How ESPN, Rogers virtual board ads are changing hockey on TV


TORONTO – Nathan MacKinnon skated in on Henrik Lundqvist. The goalie lunged, MacKinnon dangled and eventually tucked the puck under crossbar. He celebrated the overtime goal for Team North America, getting mobbed by teammates along the boards, in-between ads for Honda and Pizza Pizza.

At least, that’s what the fans inside the arena saw.

For those watching on Sportsnet, MacKinnon scored and started skating towards boards that were covered by Molson beer advertisements, which, as the goal horn blared, suddenly morphed into an exploding “NORTH AMERICA” name and logo as the team celebrated its win.


The digital advertisements and messaging that’s wrapped around the rink boards are one of the most interesting, and potentially revolutionary, advancements on display at the World Cup of Hockey.

They allow broadcasters to sell new real estate to sponsors and send messages to fans. They’re not nearly as hideous as those floating logos CGI’d on the glass and safety netting behind the goals. And the technology has the potential to enhance the fan experience on television … if it’s used correctly.

“It’s making the boards look cleaner. It’s great for the advertisers. But it can’t just be a money grab. It has to be used for good, and not evil,” said Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL Properties for Rogers. “It should be used to help tell stories. When we get to the point where it can be used to present graphics and stats and help with the player tracking, that’s where it becomes something special to the viewer.”

A London-based company called Supponor developed the ads on the boards. This isn’t the same CGI and green screen technology used in Major League Baseball behind home plate; this is “augmented reality” that is more seamlessly integrated into the action and less obvious.

The technology has been used for years in La Liga, Spain’s soccer lead, during matches for Barcelona and Real Madrid. Regional signage at games was covered by national sponsors during broadcasts. “We knew that it was being done, but in a passive way. Soccer’s a little different in that the peripheral signage is not a part of the game,” said Keith Wachtel, NHL Executive Vice President of Global Partnership.

Moore wasn’t exactly sure the technology would transfer over to hockey.

“When we first saw it six months ago, we thought there was no way were putting that on the air,” he said. “It was based on soccer technology and soccer players don’t move that fast.”

So the NHL worked with Supponor to make sure the technology could be applied to hockey. “They developed and refined it, and came to us about integrating it into our broadcasts,” said Bill Graff, senior coordinating producer overseeing ESPN’s World Cup of Hockey coverage.

How it works: Hardware is attached to cameras at the arena that picks up an infrared signal from an “invisible film” that’s placed over the boards. There are different technicians working on separate computers from the “world truck” on-site at the World Cup of Hockey, manually calling up the ads or the messaging for each broadcast.

“We worked with them to get lines from the output of their computers through our trucks. Sitting in the truck, on the monitors, you would just see the actual boards. It’s only post-truck that you see the CGI,” said Graff.

What’s seen on ESPN isn’t seen on Sportsnet, and vice versa. That’s because of different sponsorship deals, but also because they use the boards to advertise, say, upcoming shows on the networks.

“The NHL is interested in serving its various clients. We were interested in it because it gives us directed messaging that goes to a wide audience,” said Graff.

From the Globe & Mail, this is how they sold it:

Each advertiser was sold a certain number of guaranteed total minutes on the boards, broken up into increments from a few seconds to more than a minute, depending on the course of play. Advertisers pay a premium to appear on the digital TV boards. However, the NHL had to require that in order to secure that space, advertisers had to buy it as part of a larger media package – so as not to infringe on the deals it has with its broadcast partners, such as Rogers and ESPN.

Has it been a success? The NHL and its partners will tell you ‘yes.’

“Twitter is usually reserved for negative reviews. What we’re seeing is that for every negative comment, there’s a positive one. And that usually doesn’t happen,” said Wachtel, adding that feedback from fans has been positive about how the ads look. “They’re saying that it’s easier to follow the puck when you don’t have 22 ads cluttering the boards.”

In our own experiences, the ads looked completely integrated on mobile devices while watching the game, but looked just a bit out of place on larger HDTV sets. Nothing too jarring, but noticeable. Also noticeable: When snow from the ice would spray up and you’d see glimpses of the ads underneath the digital ones.

That’s understandable. It’s still a new technology. The real question is how it would be carried over from a single arena to the rest of the NHL, and that’s the tricky part.

“Right now, because the technology doesn’t scale, it works well in one building,” said Wachtel. He said, at the moment, it costs too much and is too labor intensive. But Supponor and other firms are trying to develop software to make it easier to integrate into NHL arenas. “Try and develop a software based or code based system that would allow us to scale at the exact same quality,” he said.

Eventually, this will lead to new sponsorship opportunities – as well as some interesting conversations with local and regional advertisers who are being covered up by national digital ads – as well as new ways for the NHL to use the boards for numbers, news and atmosphere. “You could use it for stats, and information. You could put the goal scorer up there,” said Wachtel.

The rink came alive when MacKinnon scored in a way we’ve never seen before on television, with the walls around him pulsating in a celebration of the victory. His Team North America didn’t exist before this tournament, much like these digital board graphics didn’t either.

Yet in both cases, one can’t help but come away believing we’ve seen the start of something special.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.