Right now, Michael DiLorenzo is en route to Montreal to prep for this weekend's All Star Game activities. It's been a busy couple months for the NHL's director of corporate communications, who is just recovering from the excitement around Winter Classic. With NHL starting to step out of the shadow of its professional sports big brothers NFL and MLB, there's a lot of activity going on.
However, DiLorenzo's preparations for this weekend didn't just start. He and the broad team of content experts at the NHL had been prepping for months, including the seeding of preview video and creating an All Star Game micro site. It's not just about the fans in Montreal -- it's about creating an experience for all hockey fans.
This is merely an extension of the league's usual fan-centric approach to content. Over the last year or so, the NHL has been working diligently to roll out a three-phase digital media program to serve its estimated 20 million avid fans in North America -- 13 million in the U.S. and 7 million in Canada. The primary objectives were to personalize content for avid fans, make that content more interactive, and create a more social presence on its NHL site and sub-sites.
"We know a few things about our fans that feed our strategy as a media business, but also support our investments in digital media," DiLorenzo said. "On average, about 50 percent of fans are displaced -- meaning they live in a different geographic area than their favorite teams. Inherently they have an access constraint, whether it be missing the games on TV or not being able to buy their team-branded goods at a local sporting goods store."
What DiLorenzo realized is that the combination of an access constraint and a technically sophisticated audience creates opportunity -- for both the league and for the fans. Recognizing that the NHL has "modest" national television distribution (the league owns all of its TV rights) it has the ability to take video online in a way that other leagues cannot.
"We have an ability to take the fans where no one else can take them -- a team flight, a team breakfast, traveling with the Stanley Cup," DiLorenzo said. "We want to super-serve these fans with all-access content. Give them something they otherwise could not get, that even the media can't get them."
This made the first phase of the NHL's digital strategy a relaunch of it's media player in April 2008. The league previously used a pop-up player that it would populate with all video.
"It was a good place to go in and be overwhelmed with all of the content but it wasn't programmed," he said.
Then the league launched NHL Network Online, which according to DiLorenzo takes a more programatic approach and wraps a TV "box" around the content with a channel approach -- game highlights, a live content repository and NHL Presents, which is long-form legacy video.
The NHL also wanted to innovate it's content far beyond game highlights and live reels. Hockey fans are die-hard and loyal and want to know their team members. So the league is now producing a Web-only studio show called "The Hockey Show."
"It's not a recap," DiLorenzo said. "It's an E! meets ESPN type of show. You're more likely to see 'red carpet' type coverage and interviews with players about non hockey stuff. It's a fun, edgy show."
Any major breaking stories? Can fans really get news first?
"We were able to break the Sean Avery discipline story and Commissioner (Gary) Bettman gave us the first interview," DiLorenzo said.
"The second phase of the digital plan was our relaunch of NHL.com. Like many site relaunches we were able to come up with a much cleaner design and promote it around our video, which is a real driver of traffic," DiLorenzo said.
DiLorenzo said there were was one major objective when relaunching the site -- personalization. But in order to do that well, the site had to be both active and passive in its personalization. Sure, fans can personalize the site to their favorite teams or set their preferences in an active sense. By leveraging single sign-on, the league is able to passively capture critical data points that allow them to program advertisements and offers by geographic areas and other demographic information.
"If your favorite team is the San Jose Sharks and you live elsewhere, we then know you have an access constraint," he said. "We can look at where individuals click and can personalize on a more passive basis. It's ongoing and then we're really serving our fans with our site."
The other objective of the new site was to make it more interactive and replace the static content with more dynamic content, including galleries, polls, and making the video players embeddable.
"We're looking not only to grow the gross traffic but the measures of engagement," DiLorenzo said. "At the start of the 2008-2009 season, we had north of 7.5 million unique visits per month and we're now doing 9.25 million. We also now have an unusual high number of video starts, which means the majority of those fans starting videos are watching at least 80 percent."
"We call this "phase three" but it was simultaneous with the NHL.com relaunch -- the launch of Game Center Live at the start of the 2008-2009 season," DiLorenzo said.
This is the product we developed that lets fans watch live games via streaming video.
The NHL used to have a similar product called Center Ice Online (similar to the NHL Center Ice package available via cable providers). The substance is
slightly different, DiLorenzo said, hence the new name and brand. What's nifty about Game Center Live?
Watch out-of-market games
Live chat with other fans
Exclusive camera angles
It's also a truly "widgetized" experience. Fans can watch four games at once or they can make one of the screens a live chat, or stats.
"We integrate all of this with what we call realtime statistics and action tracker," he said. "You see where all of the shots were taken from and some of those shots will click-through to highlights."
DiLorenzo also said that Game Center Live is targeted at two classes of fans - displaced fans who want to watch out-of-market games and extremely avid fans who are going to watch the games of their team's nemesis.
"All fans in every sport are tribal by nature but NHL fans are particularly tribal," DiLorenzo said.
The only kicker is that this is a paid service, but the league offers half-season pricing for those jumping in now. (Side note: I signed up for Game Center Live. As an avid Sharks fan who also likes to watch the Detroit Red Wings and Calgary Flames lose -- it's fantastic.)
DiLorenzo said that both revenue and subscriptions for Game Center Live, compared to Center Ice Online, are up more than 250 percent.
"It's a much better product and it's being marketed much more intelligently," he said.
What about traditional social networks, i.e. Facebook, Twitter, etc.? DiLorenzo says that the NHL will eventually leverage those tools but the league recognizes that they needed to take a look at the larger business objectives of the team before jumping on the "me too" social network bandwagon.
"When I think of what we do with NHL network online, we allow our fans to link to or embed any video we get on our site, so sure, we want to be where are fans our congregating," DiLorenzo said. "We want to let them share what they find. We want to take the game where the fans are, and we're determining where those fans are.
"We will never take a 'one size fits all' approach," he continued. "There are several phases to our digital roll-out. We want to do each one right and get it right. It didn't make sense for us to use those tools before we completed the other phases of our content improvement program."