New York Islanders Augment HomeIce Digital Experience With Virtual Watch Parties
Powered by BlueJeans by Verizon, the platform is connecting fans around the globe
The New York Islanders have a deep connection with fans that extends throughout Metro New York. If you include the team’s new venue, there’s a lot of buzz surrounding the NHL franchise, and that’s why the club is pushing a new capability for its HomeIce digital platform: virtual watch parties via BlueJeans by Verizon that feature domestic and international Isles fans.
“It’s all about keeping our community engaged,” says Ryan Halkett, SVP, event presentation and production experiences, New York Islanders. “Wherever they are in the world, our fans have the opportunity to celebrate with each other and feel like they’re a part of game day with us.”
Born Out of the Pandemic: A New Form of Entertainment
Needing a way to entertain fans after the National Hockey League returned from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, clubs resorted to virtual applications developed to keep friends and families in touch while in isolation. HomeTurf, a second-screen platform that replicates the in-venue show and is deployed by many professional teams, was rebranded as HomeIce by the Islanders. Introduced during the 2020-21 NHL regular season within the New York Islanders app, the digital environment features such elements as videoboard prompts, fan trivia, poll questions, chances to win prizes, hype videos, and other forms of content, live statistics, and analytics.
One of the functions that made this activation a success with fans is the ability to chat with other fans. During a period when going to bars and large-scale gatherings wasn’t possible, participating in a live chat satisfied the need for community in the best possible way. Although it was a viable solution from the start, Halkett and his production team wanted to push the platform even further by leveraging the relationship of a trusted partner.
“We asked ourselves how to extend our reach further and bring our fanbase closer,” he says. “That’s when Verizon came on with us to talk about this technology.”
In the effort to improve the platform, real-time video was added along with a live chat. Launched on April 28 vs. the Washington Capitals and used for the season finale on April 29 vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning, the feature enables fans to create their own watch-party rooms and share the experience with friends.
Even though it debuted at the end of the season, the timing of the integration was deliberate. “It was important for us and Verizon to get it launched this year,” Halkett explains. “We wanted to get the awareness of fans now, so we can really lean into it as we head into next year.”
Game-Day Workflows: Crew Handles Two Productions at Once
One challenge for the team is carrying out two simultaneous operations: the game-day atmosphere is produced both at UBS Arena and for the virtual HomeIce show. So as not to compromise either effort, the crew pre-packages the second-screen experience.
From a production perspective, the hardest challenge was the timing associated with HomeIce. Says Halkett, “We needed to figure out when to start the application: whether to start it 30 minutes before or right at game time.”
In juggling both responsibilities, the in-house production team sets a predestined run of show for HomeIce and handles the impromptu changes of the in-person event.
“Since our lead producers run the show,” says Fritz Stillings, game presentation coordinator, New York Islanders, “I’ll touch base with them on what we want to run and compile these new elements. I’ll also send them what we’re doing in the arena, so they can line [their show] up at the exact same time.”
Full Slate of Programming: Inside the Improved HomeIce Platform
Two seasons ago, HomeIce was operational for both home and away games, which required the production team to be available for all 82 games on the schedule. Last year, though, the app was used for the 41 home games. A smaller number of shows means that each virtual show can be filled with a higher quality of material. Now with the inclusion of video, alumni and franchise legends like four-time Stanley Cup champion Butch Goring are able to join in on the fun. Working closely with the team’s community-relations staff, the game-presentation department is able to align these icons with specific games on the schedule.
“Leading up to this game,” says Stillings, “we would tease and promote it by creating content like trivia questions around that specific alumnus. The fans absolutely loved it, and they thought it was really cool to be able to chat with him.”
Last season’s theme nights garnered a lot of attention — 3,000 users interacted during Nickelodeon Day on March 19 vs. the Dallas Stars — but HomeIce has been used even by fans in the stands at UBS Arena. Ultimately, that was the goal for this application when it was conceived.
“We started to see people use it inside of the arena to create their own small gatherings,” says Halkett. “We’d see people comment what section they were in on the live chat, and it turned into a hangout that was exclusively made through HomeIce.”
Deepening the Connection: Celebrating the 50th-Anniversary Season
Aside from the home games designated as special occasions, an average of 400-500 fans used the second-screen portal throughout the 2021-22 season. Many teams have slowed or completely stopped operating their second-screen shows, but, with this large following, the Islanders are heading into the 2022-23 season with a lot of momentum. The production team having grown comfortable with the workflow, next year’s 50th-anniversary celebration will provide more opportunities to have some fun.
“We’re looking to add a lot of fan-generated content that will tap into the 50th season of the Islanders,” says Halkett. “We want to have a destination inside the app where they can tap into the 50th season.”