The NHL Is Using Technology to Bolster Its Fan Experience – SportTechie

Thanks to a collaboration from Verizon, SMT, Immersiv.io and Apple, a fan can enjoy player and puck tracking on a mobile phone, with accompanying AR graphics.
NEWARK, NJ — An iPhone rested on a tripod in front of Suite 225, pointed toward the ice where one could tap any of the Devils or Sabres skating in the Prudential Center last Thursday night and see just how fast they were moving. Shot speeds, time on ice and heat maps were easily accessible, too, all with barely perceptible latency. 
This particular activation pulled tracking data from the players and puck and layered augmented reality graphics on top of the video—all part of a collaboration from Verizon (5G ultrawideband network), SMT (NHL Edge tracking system), Immersiv.io (sports AR company) and Apple (the device).  
Verizon Multi-View enabled users to select up to seven live video angles for immediate replays, some of them showing a 10K feed from C360 Technologies. On the scoreboards for all fans were automated replays from WSC Sports and more tracking data from SMT.  
All of this was on display for media and league partners—and in varying degrees of public accessibility—as part of the NHL’s Technology Showcase, at which SportTechie was among the select group of invited reporters. The event emphasized the work being done to bolster the fan experience and, in particular, those aforementioned features available only to those in the venue. 
“The people who pay the most to come see our game should get the best possible experience,” says NHL EVP of business development and innovation Dave Lehanski. “There is nothing that anybody in that venue should think about that they don’t have, that they could get if they were home or elsewhere.” 

From betting to puck and player tracking, the NHL is creating an immersive experience for fans at both the arena and on their couch.

From betting to puck and player tracking, the NHL is creating an immersive experience for fans at both the arena and on their couch.


Lehanski outlined the league’s objectives for serving fans and was clear about the hierarchy. “Top of our list is in-arena,” he says. After that are improving the broadcast experience—both linear and streaming, with VizRT and Source Digital among the vendors on hand—and then it’s an exploration of Web3 and the Metaverse, for which Beyond Sports was showing its wares. 
“We’ve seen attendance declines in other sports,” Lehanski says. “We’re super fortunate, for a variety of reasons, that we’re still operating at 95% capacity—NHL fans are avid, the game moves really fast so we think it lends itself better to younger consumers. There’s lots of speed, lots of action. It doesn’t take too long, maybe like baseball. There are a lot of things that we’re just lucky that are inherently built in the hockey that people want to see it. 
“We’re not going to sit back and rest on that. We’re seeing declines in other sports, which may not be because the sport is slow, it takes too long and it may be because young consumers don’t want to spend $125 and four hours to come to a live event when they could sit at home and watch it and get replays and get highlights and bet on their phone.”
NHL fans are avid, the game moves really fast so we think it lends itself better to younger consumers. There’s lots of speed, lots of action. It doesn’t take too long, maybe like baseball.
                                              — NHL EVP of business development and innovation Dave Lehanski
The NHL last convened a similar demonstration during CES in Las Vegas back in January 2019, before the pandemic sidelined such in-person activities until last week. The timbre of that event was very aspirational. Puck and player tracking was only beginning trials—which at the time was being done by a different company that the league would eventually replace—and the necessary bandwidth was not available. 
Nowwith SMT capably providing tracking data and with Verizon and Amazon providing 5G and cloud servicesthis year’s edition was more a preview than a wish list, with a mix of technologies currently available or at least technically possible, even if not yet implemented in the NHL. 
“Everything we’re doing is to build the underlying infrastructure and technology that will allow us to create these custom experiences,” Lehanski says. “That’s the NHL strategy for everything that we do going forward.” 

NHL CTO Peter DelGiacco, left; NHL EVP of business development and innovation Dave Lehanski, middle; NHL VP Technology Keith Horstman, right.

NHL CTO Peter DelGiacco, left; NHL EVP of business development and innovation Dave Lehanski, middle; NHL VP Technology Keith Horstman, right.


 In-Venue Video  
That goal took a leap forward in September 2020 when Verizon joined as the league’s official 5G partner. Eric Nagy, Verizon’s director of sports partnerships and innovation, says the telecom is working to “aggressively deploy” 5G at all venues. He held a phone with five synced camera angles of the Devils-Sabres game. “We’ve having five angles at 720p,” Nagy says. “That’s taking roughly 25 megabytes per second of video streaming at low latency—around one second. It takes a killer network to pull that off.” 
Up to 15 or 20 cameras could be selected for fans to customize their multi-view angles. “We joke around about this: our fans are pretty clear about what they want,” Lehanski says. “And there are a lot of things that all fans want when they go to a venue now: we’d like to bet, we’d like to play games, I want to know how long the line is at the bathroom. But, still today, the No. 1 thing that they want is a replay. That was probably the case in 1988, 1998, 2008 and, still today, I want to be able to see what just happened on the ice.”
With the ultra-high-resolution C360 cameras, the technology could be configured to track any player the fan wants to follow. That will take a few more integrations to scale that feature, but Nagy calls it “the north star” for them to work toward. “When a fan comes in here, we have the capacity, because of 5G, to personalize it—so, the way you watch it, the way you watch different angles, the way you see the players interact, the way you watch the puck,” adds Verizon VP of device technology Brian Mecum. 
There are a lot of things that all fans want when they go to a venue now: we’d like to bet, we’d like to play games, I want to know how long the line is at the bathroom. But, still today, the No. 1 thing that they want is a replay.
                                                                                          –Dave Lehanski
Immersiv, which also has worked with the UEFA Champions League and the French Open at Stade Roland Garros, adds contextual data for the user. Though the integration was shown on a phone, the French startup has partnerships with Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap.  
“Right now, we’re showing a lot of things on the phones because nobody has really great glasses,” says Immersiv.io product manager Jade Ferreol. “But as soon as the glasses will be there, we’ll be able to really have this experience on glasses, and it will be a lot different. You will not spend your own game like watching with your phone as soon as you have the glasses. It’s a very different experience.” 

VizRT recently produced an NHL game using three producers deployed at three different locations.

VizRT recently produced an NHL game using three producers deployed at three different locations.


At-Home Broadcasts 
Along with major broadcast partners Rogers, ESPN and Turner, the NHL continues to upgrade its at-home viewing, as well. The league hopes to make SAP’s iPad Coaching Insights appwhich has evolved considerably since its launch in January 2019 and recently added more video feedsavailable to broadcasters are soon as the upcoming playoffs. 
“The opportunity that we have in the next couple of years is taking all this data and creating insights [to] make the game a lot more relevant,” NHL CTO Peter DelGiacco says, “with better stories and be a lot more entertaining for all fans, not just the hardcore people, but also give better insights [for casual fans].” 
On the back end of linear production, VizRT is showing how efficient the process can be. There is no longer the same need for big production trucks and larger staffs. Last week, VizRT produced its own feed of the game with only three disparate producers—one at NHL HQ, one in his Toronto home and one at a house along Hermosa Beach. At one moment, VizRT head of sports Kevin Bovet started streaming the game from his phone, which the producers could instantly incorporate into the broadcast, demonstrating the flexible tools in the cloud. “We really believe that is the future of the production,” Bovet says, “but what we want to do here is prove that it’s available today.” 
For streaming, Source Digital showcased a pair of feeds with graphical overlays for fans of differing interest. Through self-selected features and machine learning, fans can choose to personalize their own experience or follow along through certain templates, such as a betting-focused feed or one for a social watch party. Given the price point of an out-of-market NHL.TV subscription, it’s particularly imperative to cater more functionality for that demographic, Lehanski says. “Streaming definitely caters more to levels of avidity from a fan base.” 

Block hockey characters skating across a digitally rendered rink.

Block hockey characters skating across a digitally rendered rink.


In the Metaverse  
On a large screen in corner suite 234, animated block characters skated across a digitally rendered rink, mirroring the actions of the players on the ice. Beyond Sports was taking the tracking data and visualizing it as an animated program. Illustrations of fireworks accompanied goals. Paired with that 2D representation was a virtual reality headset which could take fans into an immersive version of the same. 
“We can make characters look like anything you want—it doesn’t have to be realistic,” says Beyond Sports CTO and co-founder Nicolaas Westerhof. “It can be a fun character, in this case aimed especially at the kids. The younger generation are just not as engaged anymore with watching television in the linear way. They’re not sitting on the couch watching TV for three hours watching the game, so what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to make it more fun for them.” 
At the NHL tech showcase in Las Vegas, Beyond Sports exclusively used the VR platform, creating a virtual replica of the arena and allowing fans to control their viewpoint. Their invitation this time, Lehanski says, was largely predicated on their 2D adaptation and ability to convert data into virtual experiences that portend metaverse integrations. 
Web3 remains an area in which all leagues have considerable room for strategy development. But Lehanski hinted at another partnership to be announced soon in this space and discussed the need to lay down a foundation for future work.  
“When you think about Web3, Metaverse, these new environments and how we can start as a league to get integrated into those spaces and those environments,” he says, “once you look at that, you’ll be like, ‘I get it.’ If you’ve got a kid and you’ve ever seen Roblox or Fortnite or any of these things, you’ll be like, ‘I could see, as crazy as it might be, my avatars running up the snowy mountain and when it gets to the top, there’s a rink and there’s the Winter Classic, right?’” 
 
Photo credits: NHL (all photos)
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