NHL uses Web 2.0 to hook fans into following Stanley Cup playoffs

League hopes new digital platform piques interest outside finalist cities Pittsburgh and Detroit

While the Stanley Cup is the oldest — and perhaps most venerated — sports trophy, the competition for hockey's "Holy Grail" has never generated the broad fan interest of football's Super Bowl or playoff games in other major sports.

But when the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings hit the ice Saturday for Game One of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, the National Hockey League hopes a new digital strategy can help boost interest in its final playoff games this year.

League officials say that an online video network launched last month is already helping to better engage the league's traditionally tribal fan base. And an overhaul of NHL.com planned for September aims to use more Web 2.0 and social media features to further maintain the attention of fans whose teams are out of contention for the championship.

"While all sports are tribal, our fans acted on a much more tribal basis than fans of other sports," noted John Collins, the NHL's senior vice president of business and media. "Fifty percent of our most avid fans wouldn't watch the Stanley cup finals if their team wasn't involved. No one ever cancelled their Super Bowl party if they didn't like the teams in the game."

In the fall of 2007, the NHL began ramping up its online efforts by building a studio to produce original video content and coming up with a plan for an online broadband network to run as an extension of the main NHL.com Web site, Collins added.

In addition, the NHL hired Andre Mika, whose résumé includes stints at Disney, Dreamworks and NBC, as vice president of broadband and new-media production. Mika also headed up AOL's original content development efforts and produced the Live Earth concerts for Al Gore.

The NHL's new online video network was launched to coincide with the start of the league's playoff season. The NHL Online Network includes seven video channels, each with various forms of content — daily hockey shows, press conferences, access to team practices, podcasts and interviews.

The online network was aimed at piquing the interest of fans, Collins said. "Historically, traffic on NHL.com would begin to decline as we got into the playoffs because we wouldn't have as many teams playing hockey. The way the league has historically marketed itself has been very team-centric. In the U.S., 92% of hockey fans are also fans of the NFL. It wasn't that hockey fans were genetically different. There really was a huge content void, and NHL.com could really help fill that void," he said.

With the new network, unique visitors to NHL.com grew by 43% in April compared with the same month last year. This month, the site is on pace for a similar gain (more than a 40% increase over May 2007 so far). Halfway through the month, the site had almost reached the total number of unique visitors logged in May 2007, Collins added. "It really speaks to the opportunity that we see in the digital space and how underserved the hockey fan — particularly in the U.S. — is."

"By beginning to expose our fans to highlights from all around the league and getting fans of a particular team to know and experience the great players on other teams, we will begin to get hockey fans to not lessen their passion for their local team but to begin to act like hockey fans," he added.

The effort will continue this fall when the league adds more personalization and Web 2.0 features in its overhaul of NHL.com. The new site will include an advanced social media platform to let fans engage with one another, offering ways for them to embed video on the site in their own blogs or other sites.

"We've never really programmed the experience in a way where you could have a single log-in and we could hit fans at every touch point along the way making sure were really crafting an experience," Mika said. "Instead of just having all of this content and all these blogs happening below the surface, we're going to bubble it up to the surface. When there are news stories, we'll pull those up to the surface, and we'll have content like official analysts and from the whole blogosphere [reacting to those news stories]. You'll be able to see the temperature of the entire hockey world. This is a great driver for people to start talking about what is happening in the hockey world."

In addition, NHL will have more live in-line video streaming to add to printed content and the addition of widgets with RSS feeds and video for users to virally spread NHL content across the Web.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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