NHL looks to mobile, gaming to expand league’s growth

Image via EA Sports
Image via EA Sports

When the Inside Mobile Apps conference kicks off December 3-4 in New York, one of the show’s featured speakers will be the NHL’s vice president of mobile marketing and strategy, Chris Golier.

And with the season now underway, not to mention, fans around the globe glued to both their TVs and second screen devices, we thought it was a great time to pick Golier’s brain about the league’s app strategy and how he sees the future of NHL viewing.

Inside Mobile Apps: How does the NHL view the world of mobile apps when it comes to the importance of helping grow the popularity of the league, giving fans what they’re looking for across all devices?

Chris Golier: We have built out across every screen as best we can. We definitely look where the fans are consuming, and fan behavior has changed significantly over the past few seasons, so what we want to do is create an optimized experience based off of that screen. So for mobile, it becomes a challenge because it’s a very fragmented marketplace. With all of the different size screens and all of the different operating systems, it’s a challenge, but through partnerships and strategic relationships with NeuLion and our work with designers here, we think we’ve come up with some great apps and experiences. The next step is, we’ve provided this access wherever you are, no matter how you want to consume, we’ll provide you that access to games, game footage, game coverage, highlights, and live stream. We’re starting to expand beyond that now, as this season we’ve launched a few mobile games that are new as part of our portfolio, the thinking being that we want to expand the fan base. There’s a younger demographic that is playing games, so we’re looking at the casual fans and wondering how we can bring those casual fans into the game. If it starts out with video games or casual mobile games, then so be it, let’s get you hooked, then we’ll get you to start watching the real games once you start to grow with the NHL.

[contextly_sidebar id=”2be64da43ffa68e7b65853d73db29232″]IMA: For fans who haven’t downloaded the new NHL GameCenter yet, what’s new inside the app this season?

CG: One of the things we’re doing is expanding with our teams. We launched 14 club apps, working closely with these teams to create an experience on a team-by-team basis, servicing their fans in their local market, and their displaced fans for that matter. And this is really a first step in a more concerted effort to talk to the fans when they’re inside the arena or when they’re on their couch in a local market. I think it’s a league and a club initiative that will continue to grow as time goes on, but it was a big effort. We’ve had the GameCenter app on the market for the past few seasons, and some teams have had their own apps, but now we’re making sure that every team is represented in the major app stores and providing a deeper look on a team-by-team basis with exclusive team content with those products.

IMA: How do you see the advancement of the second screen changing the way fans watch hockey?

CG: We think about that and have created a programming strategy around that, so with mobile in particular we know that the most downloads happen during game time, we know most usage happens during game time, so it’s that in-game moment that matters most to the fans. We have as much data and statistical information as you could possibly consume, whether it’s mobile, Web, or our GameCenter app. We have near real-time highlights that you can get access to while the game is happening, so if something of importance happens, we’re trying to get that information to our fans, so even if you’re not in front of a big screen watching the game, you can experience what’s happening and follow along. We do real-time shift changes in the apps now, so when you’re seeing the players go on and off the ice in real-time, it adds some beef to the experience when you’re with your wife shopping or you when you’re at a restaurant and can’t get access to the big screen.

We also launched a predictive game with the idea of driving sustained viewership. The predictive game is called NHL PrePlay, and we’ve had it out for a full season last year, and we re-launched it again this season. It’s meant to serve that fan who really wants to be active during the game. So on a real-time basis, as you’re watching the big screen, you’re being peppered with questions about what’s going to happen next. As an example, somebody scores a goal, but what team, what player is going to score next? Pick correctly and you’ll receive some points. So it’s an actual game modeled after video games where you earn points playing against other fans or even your friends. It’s really meant to be a fun experience with leaderboards, and last year, we also did some prizing during the playoffs. What we found was the average viewing time in general was exceeded by those playing NHL PrePlay. We saw 5-10 minutes per user on average longer viewing time than the average NHL fan. So those types of experiences matter to us, and we’re definitely following along. All of social media continues to be a big boom for us. It’s a way for fans to get access to information, and we know people are following their Twitter feeds and Facebook, listening to what their friends are saying, listening to what the general population is saying, so we’re incorporating social into everyone of our products with that in mind.

IMA: Can we expect any new apps to release throughout the season, or just more updates within the apps that are already out?

CG: We have some fantasy-light games that will be coming out. We have one hopefully coming out next week, so stay tuned on that. The idea being, Yahoo, who is our fantasy partner, has a full season rotisserie type fantasy game, and there are also the shorter type sprint games that compliment the long form game very well. We also have a bunch of league partners who are interested in participating, so we might see one or two more launches throughout the season.

IMA: So with all the advances in technology and second screen viewing, what’s watching an NHL game going to be like five years from now?

CG: Five years is a long time in technology. [laughs] It’s hard to say, but as the trends continue to change, we’re on top of it. Look, the in-arena experience will continue to get better, without a doubt, and that all starts with connectivity. As long as you can connect to a network and have real data, whether that’s social networking, or downloading apps, or ordering to your seat, these are all areas ripe for innovation. We sellout arenas on a nightly basis, and fans are having a great time, we just want to continue to augment their experience.

IMA: It’s interesting to look around arenas and see how many people are glued to their phones, tweeting and checking stats during a game.

CG: Personally, I think hockey is the best live sports experience you can see. It’s fast moving, it’s graceful, it’s powerful … you can come up with a lot of adjectives to describe it, but it’s fun. What we don’t want is people sitting there looking down at their phone screen the whole time. That being said, we know that behaviors dictate what we do. If people are tweeting and they’re telling their friends, “Hey check me out, I’m at the game right now,” we’re not going to get in the middle of that. We just want to provide the experience people come to expect. Time will tell, but we listen to our fans, and that will help to dictate product and strategy as we move forward.