NHL Teams Up With MLB Advanced Media To Revolutionize Its Digital, Linear Content

The National Hockey League is partnering with Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) to bring sweeping changes to how hockey will be produced and consumed over digital and linear platforms in North America. In a six-year partnership agreement, MLBAM takes over the NHL’s digital operations – which includes NHL.com, NHL league and team apps, the 30 team websites, and the live streaming service GameCenter LIVE – as well as its linear platform, absorbing NHL Network and moving its operations into MLB Network’s facilities in Secaucus, NJ.

The NHL's John Collins and Gary Bettman with MLB's Rob Manfred and Bob Bowman at the official announcement of the partnership at the NHL's offices in New York City.

From left: The NHL’s John Collins and Gary Bettman and MLB’s Rob Manfred and Bob Bowman announce the leagues’ partnership at NHL offices in New York City.

“Two professional sports leagues in North America have never entered into an agreement of this nature,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said during a press conference at the NHL offices on Tuesday. “There’s a reason for that. Digital rights partnerships are extremely complicated. Technology is changing virtually on a daily basis and together we think that we can lead during this extraordinary time. This type of partnership has never been tried before and we believe the opportunities are both unprecedented and unlimited. We’re dreaming bigger and broader to create the best possible fan experience.”

On the digital side, the move offers the NHL the chance to work with the industry’s leading digital technology organization. On top of the work it does with MLB.TV and MLB.com, MLBAM already provides the back-end infrastructure for HBO Go, WatchESPN, March Madness Live, WWE Network, and the – recently announced – PGA Tour Live. The company also supports the streaming services for the YES Network and SportsNet New York.

“One of the most important things that a sports league can do is make sure you can deliver your content and your games to your fans in the best possible way,” said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. “We believe that MLB Advanced Media has been a leader in this space and that we have developed creative ways to serve our fans through multiple platforms. We think, in partnership with the NHL, that we will provide that same kind of technology and service that will be of great benefit for NHL fans over the long haul.”

The partnership means major growth in facilities and personnel for MLBAM, according to Bob Bowman, CEO of MLBAM and president of business and media for Major League Baseball, who noted that additions would be made at both the New York City and San Francisco offices.

“This is right in our wheel house with live sports,” said Bowman. “This is what we grew up on; this is in our DNA. We are going to work closely with the NHL and rely on the teams a lot but we are really excited about getting great products out there. We have learned a lot in baseball that we hope to bring over here but we are also looking to learn some new things too.”

While the new-look NHL Network is slated to launch with a new studio and control room in Secaucus by Opening Night (Oct. 7), the goal is for the universal linear and digital overhaul to be executed by January 1, 2016. That gives Bowman’s side about six months to assess the platforms and products that are in place and assess and build out how it sees fit.

“Most everything that goes on [at the NHL] is great,” says Bowman, “and all you are trying to do is add some spit and polish on it and make it very good in terms of its reliability and qualitativeness and make it scalable so people can come in and not run into buffering issues or size problems. We’re looking forward to [the NHL] worrying about content and us worrying about technology, and everything will be great.”

The partnership is also a significant peek into the much-anticipated future of MLB Advanced Media, or “BAM Tech” which was referenced numerous times throughout the press conference. After rumors of an IPO drifted away it appears MLBAM is prepared to spinoff “BAM Tech” with help from strategic investors, the first being the NHL. Various reports quote the NHL as receiving a 7-10% stake in Bam Tech as a part of this agreement.

“MLBAM Tech has gone from a vendor of authenticated rights like the WWE and HBO to a back-end technology that actually has skin in the game,” said Bowman. “I think that represents the support and the vision that our owners have and our commissioner has. We are not smart enough to know where this all ends but we know that when you’re given great content like the NHL and a good backbone like MLBAM Tech, I think good things happen.”

The deal should prove to be a huge move for NHL Network, as well, which has struggled with distribution, ratings, and live original production since its launch in 2007. MLBAM receives exclusive rights to operate the NHL Network on behalf of the NHL. The NHL Network’s daily on-air operations will be based out of MLB Network’s headquarters in Secaucus, N.J.

While Bettman refused to comment on the financial details of the deal, various reports – including from the Wall Street Journal – have it valued at $600 million to the NHL. Earlier reports of $1.2 billion from the Sports Business Journal were refuted by Bettman at the press conference on Tuesday and described as “way too high.”

GameCenter Live will remain an out-of-market streaming package as in-market streaming remains a negotiating sticking point between regional sports networks and both the NHL and MLB (though MLB has expressed optimism that the issue would be resolved sometime this season). Both leagues will remain independent in those negotiations with their regional network partners.

“I think for both leagues, the topic of in-market streaming has been the subject of long and varied discussions,” said Bettman. “I’m not even sure that’s there haven’t been times where we don’t see eye-to-eye as to what the solution is, so its not surprising that neither of us has been able to reach a satisfactory conclusion point with the regionals. We’re both still working on it.”

Bettman also thanked NeuLion, which has been the NHL’s digital provider for the better part of the past decade. NeuLion’s infrastructure will remain in place at the beginning of the season and will remain the core of GameCenter Live until the expected Jan. 1 revamp date.

“NeuLion has been a terrific partner,” he said. “We could not have established the deep foundation we have in digital content without their expertise and talented people.”