SVG Sit-Down: NHL Chief Content Officer/EVP Steve Mayer on League’s New Production Facility and Growing Content Operation
The goal is to be increasingly aggressive in developing programming and platforms
Since joining the NHL in late 2015, Chief Content Officer and EVP Steve Mayer has overseen a full overhaul of the league’s content-creation and -distribution efforts. What was once a small department focused on serving internal needs is now a full-fledged production factory that creates original content for the NHL’s digital and social channels, NHL Network, rightsholders, and more.
Last year, the NHL Original Productions and NHL Studios teams led by Mayer finally moved into the league’s new headquarters at One Hudson Yards in Manhattan. Originally scheduled to christen the new facility in 2020, the move was delayed by the pandemic.
Now, with the aid of a dedicated new studio and robust production facility at Hudson Yards, the NHL’s production arm has ramped up its efforts for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and beyond. SVG recently sat down with Mayer at the new headquarters to discuss the new Stanley Cup Stories and upcoming Third Period Live digital series, how his team has weathered the pandemic, why the new facility is a game-changer for the production team, how the league is bringing more original productions like Quest for the Stanley Cup (which returns May 27) in-house, and how he sees the NHL’s production operations continuing to grow in the future.
Now that you are settled into your new facility, how would you say your team navigated the very challenging past couple of years?
It has been hard on everyone here on so many levels, but, looking back now, it’s really amazing how well we got through it all. We knew that we needed to be resourceful right from day one, and we knew we were going to have to do things differently.
In the early days [of the pandemic], we had to be there for our fans to keep them updated — not only what was going on with the league in terms of coming back but also what was going on with our players in their own lives. The technical and engineering team was absolutely amazing: they were able to take what we had in our previous building and essentially replicate it in people’s homes. Our editors and producers each had satellite offices in their basements, living rooms, and bedrooms, and all of that needed to connect. Somehow, that all happened immediately.
It was truly shocking just how fast we were able to come back. At the time, we were faster than the major networks that cover our sport. We even learned how to do a Zoom television program and Zoom press conferences before our network partners did. They were dying for programming so we were giving them really valuable content. That was possible only because we acted really fast. Suddenly, we were producing television shows, and our content was going viral. We came up with a trivia show hosted by P.K. Subban, and we had an interview show that took you inside players’ living rooms and bedrooms, and we met their girlfriends and their mothers and their families. We did so much unique programming, and it drove every one of us in this department to come up with ideas and be super creative. And we were obviously incredibly aggressive when we came back with the bubble and just continued to grow from there.
How has the move into the new building gone, and how has this new facility benefited your content-creation efforts?
The move to this [new building] was literally scheduled for a couple months after [the pandemic arrived], so we were already packing up our boxes for the move. Then everything changed, and, obviously, the move-in was pushed back, which was very disappointing. But we’re thrilled to finally be here and exploring how this facility can make us better and more efficient.
First and foremost, everything here talks to each other. Right now, I can log in to an edit room and watch an edit happen live. The connectivity in this building is incredible, but we’ve also kept the connectivity to people’s homes as well. Whether you’re in the office, at home, or on the road, you still have access to everything. The pandemic has made people look at content extremely differently. Connectivity and being able to share content and footage has always been important but never as much as now.
We’ve also now gotten our studio launched and are producing shows and content throughout the Playoffs. Next year, we’ve got a whole slate of programming that we’re going to announce.
How is your team looking to grow the NHL Studios operations here now that you’re in the new facility and have launched the new studio?
On the studio side, we are launching two programs during the Playoffs that are primarily for YouTube: Stanley Cup Stories and Third Period Live.
Stanley Cup Stories is all about highlighting the amazing content being produced at the club level. We’ve aggregated all this incredible content from playoff teams, and we’re producing our own and then packaging all of it into Stanley Cup Stories. These are the really heartwarming stories that we’re telling about our Playoff players. The teams are loving it because it gives them a chance to amplify their content and to give credit to their talented producers and directors.
We’re also doing a second-screen experience starting in the Conference Finals called Third Period Live. It’s a unique approach, with lots of casual conversation along with heavy integration of puck-and-player tracking. There will also be a gambling component to the show where we look at the latest live odds and make some predictions moving forward. And then, just like you’re seeing in the Manningcast and K-Rod cast [on ESPN], we will bring in celebrity guests remotely.
We’ve got some plans for new shows that will be announced before next season. Eventually, our hope is that not only we are doing these shows for our platforms but ESPN, Turner, Sportsnet, and [other rightsholders] are also taking the shows.
On the same note, how are you looking to grow NHL Original Productions?
In terms of the original programs, [such as] Quest for the Stanley Cup, we typically used outside production companies. We are still doing that in some cases, but we are producing a lot more of those shows in-house. This year, we will be doing two original shows for Amazon; [plus] we’ll have Quest for the Stanley Cup and Road to the Winter Classic, which has always been produced outside but will be done internally this year. Our goal is to continue heading in that [in-house] direction rather than outsourcing.
How has the first season working with ESPN and Turner Sports gone from your point of view?
They have both been incredible partners. They are welcoming of the league’s content and have the vehicles to use the content that we’re producing. If you watch The Point any day on ESPN, we are producing a lot of that material. We’re really proud of that, and it gets our folks really motivated.
In the past, we were primarily producing content for our own outlets — NHL.com, NHL social-media channels, and NHL Network — and we’re continuing to do that, of course, but we’re also serving our rightsholders more than ever. We loved working with NBC, but it has been a lot of fun having a fresh set of eyes and a different kind of mentality. ESPN and Turner have been willing to experiment, and they truly have our backs. We collaborate quite a bit: we give them ideas, and they bring ideas to us, which is really exciting.
From a production perspective, how are you looking to expand your content-creation ops next season?
Admittedly, we had hoped to ready for this season and weren’t, but we’re very excited for Playoffs, and we’ve now got big plans for next season. When a team comes to town to play the Rangers and they’re staying right down the road, we’re looking to bring them in whenever possible [for interviews]. Some of our show concepts for next year are based on players. The possibilities are endless.
We’ve grown so much in terms of [headcount] since I arrived six years ago, and I would put this team up against anyone in the business. Back then, there wasn’t any original content being done in-house, and look where we are today. We’ve brought in a lot of really good people, and we’re finally getting recognized for the quality of our content. Our goal is all about growing the sport and attracting more casual sports fans. We feel we’re accomplishing that.
Also, with everything being under one roof now, we’re being much more aggressive in coming up with ideas, developing new programming, and exploring all [distribution] platforms. In the past, we really couldn’t do a studio show or bring in Sydney Crosby and do a piece with him.
We are truly a production company, and the growth potential is endless. One day, could we be something on the level of NFL Films or NBA Entertainment? They’ve set an amazingly high bar, but that’s certainly the goal striving towards. We’re nowhere near that right now, but we are making big strides every single year. We’ve got the foundation and the right mindset; now it’s a just a matter of continuing to grow and get better.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.