In 2015, the sports industry saw the beginnings of a monumental partnership. The digital-rights mega-deal between the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball Advanced Media showed that the NHL had done an outstanding job of cultivating its business across web, video, mobile and social. With MLBAM plunking down $100 million annually for NHL digital rights, it was also evident that MLBAM saw potential for even further growth of the league’s digital platforms.
A little more than one year later, it’s easy to see that potential being recognized. NHL.com has been completely redesigned and optimized for storytelling, particularly with video and imagery. The NHL App, formerly known as NHL GameCenter Live, has been given a fresh user interface, as well as updated and customized for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And the NHL’s social media marketing platforms continue to innovate, with activations that are fun, fan-friendly and interactive.
This emphasis on digital, mobile and social makes perfect sense. Not only has the NHL historically had the most tech-savvy fans (research has shown that NHL fans have the most smartphones, HDTVs and high-speed-internet connections), but the league also has unique business challenges that digital, and social media in particular, can solve.
All sports are inherently tribal, but this is especially true for the NHL. Hockey fans are less likely to watch a game that doesn’t involve their favorite team, so even though the Stanley Cup is the most recognized trophy in all of sports, and the playoffs represent the most competitive hockey in the world, fans have historically tuned out when their favorite team is eliminated from contention.
By building compelling social media activations on the most relevant, fan-friendly platforms, the NHL is keeping fans more engaged more often. Thus, the league is strategically reducing fan tribalism and boosting the size of its audience where it tends to matter most–on television.
The NHL asked fans to video-capture and share their favorite playoffs moments at the game, at the bar and at home by using the #MyPlayoffsMoment hashtag for the chance to have their footage featured across NHL media–social, web, mobile and TV.
Why it works: With mobile phones in everyone’s pocket, every sports league has a legion of camera-people at their disposal. By cleverly leveraging the videos across all of its distribution channels, this activation gives fans their shot at 15 minutes of fame when they express their uber-fandom.
Designed by Twitter to convey the fun and utility of its platform as an ideal second-screen experience, the Twitter Mirror has been around for a couple of years, but the NHL used it in an innovative way to keep fans in all markets engaged and active. Leading into the playoffs, the league hosted live video question-and-answer sessions with players Brian Gionta and Shane Doan.
Why it works: Fans love to brush up against their hockey heroes, even if only virtually. The video format was particularly effective–The #AskDoan Q&A received more than 2 million impressions from just 11 tweets. Also, by engaging with two players from markets out of the playoffs, (Gionta in Buffalo and Doan in Arizona), the initiative activated many fans that may have otherwise been done with hockey for the season.
EA Sports NHL 17 cover vote
Why it works: Any sports gamer will tell you that the cover position on any EA Sports title is a coveted place to be and an indication of superstardom. The intersection of hockey, social media and video gaming is where the most passionate hockey fans dwell.
Another garden variety Twitter Q&A, right? Wrong. “Keeper of the Cup” Phil Pritchard has one of the most interesting jobs in all of professional sports. The session took place in Twitter’s newly renovated #BlueRoom.
Why it works: The Stanley Cup is the most recognizable trophy in all of professional sports and regarded as the hardest to win. As a result, the iconic trophy has a history and personality all its own, and fans have an insatiable appetite for its stories.
New Facebook features
Facebook is constantly innovating, and NHL teams and the league itself are very nimble when it comes to testing these new innovations with fans. Whether it’s the new Facebook Live video format or temporary profile picture frames, the NHL is very quick to roll these new features out to get hockey fans talking about their favorite sport, earning millions of impressions in the process.
Why it works: When it comes to fandom, NHL fans are typically among the uber consumers of digital content. Put a new digital or mobile feature in front of a hockey fan, and he’s likely to try it in the name of cheering for his favorite team. This is especially true where more than one-half of all NHL fans are “displaced,” and live in a market outside of their favorite team.
Snapchat Live Stories
The NHL has held (or will hold) multiple Live Stories with Snapchat, including opening night of the first round, Stanley Cup Finals game one, the Stanley Cup Finals clinching game and the winning team’s championship parade. The league also worked directly with Snapchat to generate custom filters for those Live Stories.
Why it works: Now that its user base has exceeded that of Twitter, the sheer scale of Snapchat makes it a place for brands to be, and the live nature of sports makes it particularly well-suited. Having a presence on Snapchat gives the NHL another “Trojan horse” on the smartphones of its fans.
The NHL’s groundbreaking partnership with MLBAM will no doubt cause its digital strategy to evolve. Simply put, the league now has unprecedented resources and expertise in the digital realm.
That said, the NHL cannot lose sight of what has made it such a success in the digital era: an emphasis on super-serving a digitally-savvy audience with the willingness and ability to innovate and take risks. This will ensure that it continues not only to enrich the fan experience, but also to add value to its broadcast and sponsorship partners.
Michael DiLorenzo is the East Coast general manager of digital sports marketing firm Rebel Ventures. He was previously a senior director at the NHL, where he started the league’s social media marketing and strategy practice.
“Because it’s the cup” photo courtesy of Getty Images and The Players’ Tribune.