Deal with MLBAM Should Improve NHL’s Digital Media

The end of July and early August are usually the quietest few weeks on the NHL calendar and, for the most part, this year has been no different. Besides a few minor free agent signings and the National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid not much else has really transpired. With that being the case it’s understandable if you missed the news that the NHL has reached a digital media agreement with MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM).

For those that aren’t baseball fans (and those that are) the name MLBAM may be pretty unfamiliar. Besides running the various MLB media platforms such as mlb.com, the various team websites, MLB Network, MLB Extra Innings, MLB TV, and the mobile app MLB At Bat, the company is also in charge of several other entities. As per Sportsnet, MLBAM is already the streaming video provider for ESPN, HBO, and WWE among others. Forbes called the company “the biggest media company you’ve never heard of.”

With the six year, $1.2 billion deal MLBAM will take over control of nhl.com and the team sites, Gamecenter Live, NHL Center Ice, and (perhaps most importantly) the NHL Network. If you’ve ever watched the MLB Network on a day or night with a full slate of games, the fact that the MLBAM is taking over the underwhelming NHL Network can only be seen as good news.

Having watched my fair share of the NHL Network, MLB Network, NFL Network, and even NBA TV, I can confidently say the MLB Network blows the other three out of the water. Baseball’s flagship station sports a huge, modern studio, live programming usually from 10 am to after midnight, and an impressive arsenal of studio analysts that includes 14 former players, a former team executive, and several well respected baseball lifers such as Peter Gammons and Ken Rosenthal.

So how will (or how could) the new deal impact hockey fans and how they use the NHL’s media outlets? It’s a safe bet that the NHL Network is going to get a nice upgrade. As part of the agreement, the NHL Network will have a new headquarters in Secaucus, NJ, where a new set will be built. There may also be a few new faces in front of the camera. As already mentioned MLB Network has a huge amount of analysts and hosts, while the NHL Network only has ten listed on its website. Not only could NHL Network expand the amount of analysts at their disposal, the move down to New Jersey may impact a few of its current hosts. The likes of Andi Petrillo, Craig Button, and others live in the Toronto area and have been based their for many years. It will be interesting to see if Petrillo (who was previously with CBC) and Button (who also does work with TSN) make the trip to the states. If MLBAM opts to run the channel in a similar way as it’s MLB cousin, there’s a solid chance of more live programming (and less condensed reruns from 2-4 in the afternoon). Among the additions I’d love to see is a live, well run, morning show. MLB Central airs live at 10am on MLB Network after its version of NHL on the Fly, and is a great alternative to Sportscenter.

Statheads will also be pleased with MLBAM. The company has a series of “Statcast” videos that go into detail on various advanced stats in regards to everything from pitch velocity to an individual player’s advantage when it comes to stealing bases. This video on which player covers the most distance in center field is a great example of the work they do. When focused on things like zone entries, shot speed, or where players are shooting from on the ice, these videos could be a huge hit.

When it comes to the individual team sites and the league site, MLBAM will begin to implement its changes in January. It’s not clear what changes will be made but if the MLB team sites and the league site are any indication, there will likely be more information available on the team homepages. By taking a look at a baseball team’s website (I glanced at the Yankees’ and Brewers’ sites) as compared to an NHL team’s (I looked at the Sabres’ site) there are a few noticeable differences. First of those is that the team’s social media is embedded and easily veiwable on the baseball sites. “What’s trending” is also a feature on the baseball sites. Overall, the baseball sites are significantly more interactive and provide a huge amount of video content when compared to their hockey counterparts. When it comes to the league site, video content and trending topics is also prevalent. MLB’s website also has a feature called “Cut 4,” which is a video channel dedicated to offbeat and funny baseball related videos that some times aren’t even related to any major league team. Among the videos currently available are a minor league team unveiling an Arnold Schwarzenegger bobbehead and a softball player hitting a home run with a behind the back swing. It is features like this that draw people to the site and provide entertainment; it is also features like this that nhl.com is currently lacking.

MLBAM will also be coming out with an NHL version of the MLB At Bat app. At Bat is baseball’s in game app that provides live scores, pitch tracking, and live statistics. There’s also a premium version that allows subscribers to watch certain games and listen to any game via the home or away radio broadcast. An NHL app that provides those features would be of great value to many fans, especially expats who can’t see or listen to their hometown team on a regular basis.

The NHL has botched a lot of things in the past, but it appears they’ve found a company willing and able to significantly improve some ways fans get their hockey fix and revolutionize others. While drastic changes likely won’t be hugely noticeable when the puck drops on the season in about two months, my bet is by the end of the year there will be a change for the positive.

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