The National Hockey League has a viewership problem. Despite having its best talent pool in generations—with players like Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon established as stars and exciting youngsters Jack Hughes, Alexis Lafreniere and Cale Makar rapidly ascending to that level—the NHL is still seeing TV ratings dwindle. With a new TV deal with a sizable increase in rights fees on the horizon, it’s a great time for the league and TV partners to reconfigure broadcasts to capture new fans while still keeping the hockey faithful tuned in.
Thankfully, with the new influx of technology, statistical analysis and a fantastic group of players, there are many paths the league can take to improve its product right now. From highlighting the talent to simplifying the game for fans, here are a few ways the NHL can broadcast better.
Statistical and Biometric Tracking
Amazon Web Services has transformed data in the NFL and Formula One, bringing all kinds of interesting data to the fans. The MLB has done the same with Statcast to better illustrate terminology like “spin rate” and “launch angle” and bring it to the forefront of the conversation. Why isn’t the NHL doing the same?
The league has been working on a similar application, testing out player and puck tracking during the 2019 and 2020 NHL All-Star games. However, despite the NHL putting trackers on the players and into pucks, fans may not have even realized it was being used if they missed the feature on the system during the pre-show. Otherwise were only a few overlays tracking players and a couple other minor uses in the broadcast, but you’d be hard-pressed to notice them without prompting.
You can see how the league implemented the system for the All-Star game. While some features were a little gimmicky (nameplates over every player’s head), some made the game easier to follow and understand, like putting a circle around the skates of the player with puck control. There was even the puck trail (known originally as FoxTrax)—widely ridiculed when it debuted—making a brief appearance during the broadcast. Using this technology more consistently, and with some fine-tuning, should lead to a better viewing experience for new and old fans alike, especially when combined with...
Better Overlays and Production Value
High definition TV should’ve been the dawn of a new era in hockey broadcasting. Glorious life-like picture quality would finally allow fans to see the action properly. No more squinting to follow the puck or to read who is in the penalty box. A revolution of how the sport was televised was expected. Yet that’s not what happened. The league never took full advantage improvement in technology.
During the standard definition era, it’s easy to understand why people found hockey hard to watch on TV. It’s hard reading tiny text on the screen while following a little black dot moving a mile a minute as players are jumping on and off the ice every 30 seconds. HD television has helped, but more can be done. Each game is shot with the same camera angle that’s been used since the 1960s. Game overlays haven’t changed much either; take a look at the modern set up compared to a game from the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals.
There’s nearly 25 years between the first and second clip, yet the basic overlay shows the exact same information. With the exact same camera angle. The only difference is an increase in picture quality.
With 4K and 8K recording and broadcasting rapidly becoming the norm, the NHL needs to follow suit and upgrade its cameras, viewing angles and overlays to modern standards. Take a look at a Formula One broadcast, There is an incredible amount of information present on the screen, but it’s all clear, readable and adds to the viewing experience. Using more camera angles would also support these types of changes. Why not use the overhead “face-off” camera as teams flash through the neutral zone? Where are the shots from the camera behind each goal when a team is buzzing on a power-play? Dynamic shots like these would enhance the action and give fans a better appreciation for the speed and skill on display in the NHL; an aspect of the sport that consistently surprises first-time fans when they make their initial trip to see an NHL game live. The league should also use this time to upgrade all of the cameras to the highest industry standards. The Stanley Cup Finals get this treatment, as does the NHL’s streaming service, but the rest of the league’s broadcasts have been left behind.
Highlight the Players
Back in the ’90s there were few people in the world who didn’t know the name “Wayne Gretzky.” Today, do you know any non-hockey fans that appreciate the other-worldly talents of Connor McDavid? While not a problem unique to the NHL (how many non-MLB fans could tell you this year’s MVP recipients?), the league needs to do a much better job getting the unique talents of the players into the public eye. Why can’t Nathan MacKinnon and Auston Matthews be in commercials with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin?
The NBA is far and away the best at allowing the players to market themselves and utilizing them for their own marketing efforts. While there is no LeBron James in the NHL from a popularity standpoint, even mid-level NBA players are more well more well-known are far better known than the best players in hockey. Donovan Mitchell is a perfectly fine player—and it’s unlikely anyone would call him a top five player—but he’s in a commercial with Spider-Man. Yet nobody outside of hockey fans know who Stanley Cup champion, Conn Smythe winner and Norris trophy recipient Victor Hedman is. That shouldn’t be the case.
The Colorado Avalanche is a franchise that is showing the rest of the league how it should be done. With lots of fun social media clips, player highlights and between-period interviews, the Avalanche and Altitude broadcasts do a much better job than the national broadcast (as well as a vast majority of team broadcasts) for promoting the players on and off the ice. Avalanche fans know Tyson Jost is the team clown and that captain Gabriel Landeskog is an uber-babe with impeccable hair thanks in part to these little shots of personality thrown into each broadcast and across social media. The rise of Gritty shows that, when done right, the NHL can get a message far and wide. Now it’s time for the league to take that same approach with its outstanding talent.
Educate the Fans With Better Announcers
One major factor working against the NHL is the insular nature of “hockey culture,” specifically in the announcer’s booth. A new fan coming to an NHL broadcast for the first game may get overwhelmed, as announcers treat every game as though the audience has been watching for 20 seasons. Hockey is a fast-paced game, and it is understandable that announcers get so caught up in the action that assumptions are made by the broadcast team. It can be difficult enough to follow the action when you know what “dump and chase,” “pinching” or “stacking the blue line” mean, but imagine if you were a brand new hockey fan.
By bringing in a new generation of announcers and placing the education of new fans at the forefront of every national broadcast could grow the sport by leaps and bounds. With long-time national lead broadcaster Mike “Doc” Emerick retiring, it’s the perfect time for the NHL and its broadcast partners to revisit the primary national broadcast booth. Bring in a younger team that can relate the complexities of the sport to a younger audience will do wonders for growing the fanbase.
The NHL has a real opportunity with the extended break to reconfigure and revise its broadcast strategies to come out of the pandemic with a much better production for fans at home. From highlighting players to upgrading the broadcasting infrastructure, the NHL has a wide range of options to pursue to stop the viewership losses of the last few seasons. It’s imperative for the league as a whole to transition into a successful digital and social media powerhouse that creates longterm fans for this amazing sport.
Do you have any ideas on how to improve the NHL’s broadcast? Drop your ideas in the comments.