NHL-MLB media partnership looks like big win for hockey fans

Details are emerging about how hockey fans and the league will benefit from the NHL’s new advanced media partnership with Major League Baseball.
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We now have more details on today’s “groundbreaking” NHL-MLB partnership.

As expected, the NHL has signed a six-year partnership with MLB Advanced Media that is geared primarily toward enhancing the league’s online presence. According to a report in Tuesday’s Sports Business Daily, the league will pocket $1.2 billion, along with a small ownership stake in MLBAM. Commissioner Gary Bettman however refuted that number, saying it was too high, before adding that both sides were very happy with the deal.

The NHLPA should be pleased as well. All revenue from the deal goes into the Hockey Related Revenue pile and will feed the growth of the salary cap moving forward.

As a result of the agreement, MLBAM will take over the websites of the league and all 30 clubs, along with all mobile applications. The NHL will retain editorial control over all platforms.

MLBAM also owns the rights to distribute live out-of-market games through the GameCenter Live streaming video service and NHL Center Ice in the United States and select international markets (not including Canada). It will oversee the NHL Network, helping the league with “programming and production” after moving the channel’s facilities from Manhattan to MLB Network’s studios in Secaucus, N.J. For that, MLB will reportedly pay the NHL “approximately $100 million a year in rights fees.”

The deal kicks in starting Jan. 2016.

So, how will this effect you and the way you consume the game?

NHL-MLB deal a 'groundbreaking partnership' in media

By all accounts, hockey fans are big winners here. MLBAM is considered the gold standard for its ability to relay content to the public in slick, fast and easily accessible formats. Highlights and updates should be more quickly available and easier to locate. Streams should be more reliable. It's possible that, similar to MLB.com, free live broadcasts could be part of an enhanced NHL.com.

We should see significant upgrades to the NHL app, which is a near disaster at this point. And while there’s no expectation that the delays currently experienced by viewers of GameCenter Live will be eradicated—the same problem also exists to some extent for baseball fans—there should be improvements in other areas, particularly in terms of definition and quality of stream.

We should also see faster adaptation of new technologies that might emerge in the future that will help spread the game in ways that we can't imagine in 2015.

What we should not see is a clamping down on the cottage industry of YouTube videos and instant GIFs posted to social media. MLB has silenced these as a contravention of its copyrights, but the NHL has allowed them to exist because it recognizes the value they have in advancing conversation about the sport. Since the NHL—and not MLBAM—will continue to have control over that decision, no one involved in the production of these video hits should expect a cease-and-desist letter any time soon.

The most compelling changes, though, could come to the NHL Network, which for too long has felt like a “Me, too!” effort rather than a priority project for the league.

“We’re proud of what we’ve done but there’s always room for improvement,” NHL COO John Collins said on Tuesday. “This deal really allows us to focus on content.”

Despite upgrades before this past season, there was still a minor-league feel to signature programs like NHL Live, NHL On The Fly and NHL Tonight. If the shows can take on anything close to the production values that define MLB Now and MLB Live Tonight, it will make for a viewing experience that’s more in touch with modern expectations.

We’re also likely to see an evolution toward hot takes on the issues of the day. Whether that’s a positive development or not depends on your tastes, but given the popularity of the outsized personalities that dominate the MLB Network, it seems inevitable.

While the early focus is likely to be on the live productions there is, as Collins noted, room for significant improvement to the programming overall. That could range from setting consistent broadcast times (when exactly are Top-10 or Becoming Wild on?) to the production/re-broadcast of more team- and player-specific content, to historical documentaries and prospect promotion (live junior and college games, organizational updates). Whether any or all of these will be addressed remains to be seen, but they’re more within the realm of possibility now than they were before this MLBAM deal. 

We’ll know more as the partnership unfolds, but from all indications this will go down as good news day for fans of hockey.

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