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The NHL regular season was barely underway last month when some fans began complaining that new virtual advertisements on the TV broadcasts were making parts of the games difficult to watch.
It was not the reaction the league was hoping for after spending seven years and tens of millions of dollars on what it calls “digitally enhanced dasherboards” (DEDs), or virtual ads that are supposed to replace for viewers at home the static arena ads found on the dasherboards surrounding the ice surface.
“We had literally one five-second glitch that people love to put up on Twitter,” NHL Chief Business Officer and Senior Executive VP Keith Wachtel told Ad Age, referring to a game on Oct. 12 in which the virtual ads began malfunctioning, making it difficult for viewers at home to see the players and the puck.
Digital board ads malfunction pic.twitter.com/d5w0M1GJJa
Wachtel said the league appreciates input from fans but that it is seeing “a lot less” discussion on social media about the ads affecting their viewing experience.
The discussion within the league office, meanwhile, goes well beyond the chatter on social media. The NHL believes it is revolutionizing in-game sports advertising by giving brands the ability to target fans like never before, and that its advertising model could serve as a blueprint for professional sports leagues everywhere.
“If it can be done in hockey it can be done in any sport around the world,” Wachtel said.
For over 40 years, NHL teams have covered their dasherboards with sticker logos of their sponsors visible in person and, until this season, on TV regardless of where the game was being broadcast.
That meant fans watching on TV could be exposed to ads in different markets that had little to no meaning to them—for instance, Dallas Stars fans in Texas being served ads from Canadian sponsors while their team played in Ottawa. Now, during Stars’ broadcasts for games in the Canadian capitol, fans will be served an ad from American Airlines as opposed to Air Canada, showing firsthand how sponsors can prevent competitors from coming into their market. Ottawa fans in Ottawa, meanwhile, will see a virtual ad for Air Canada as seen below.
American Airlines virtual ad is shown on the NHL’s new “digitally enhanced dasherboards” during a game between the Dallas Stars and Ottawa Senators.
Air Canada virtual ad is shown on the NHL’s new “digitally enhanced dasherboards” during a game between the Dallas Stars and Ottawa Senators.
“For a business that has such a significant presence on both sides of the border, we were missing out on a major opportunity to provide opportunities for those partners on the other side of the border when the game or event was taking place in one country,” Wachtel said, referring to the seven teams based in Canada and 25 in the United States. “We felt there was a better solution and a need from a business standpoint.”
The NHL partnered with Supponor, a London-based company that specializes in live in-game virtual advertising, and debuted the first iteration of the digital ads during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey to a “50-50” mixed reaction from fans on social media, according to Supponor CEO James Gambrell.
Supponor spent the last six years scaling its machine-learning artificial intelligence—which is more advanced than a green screen MLB uses for serving ads behind home plate, for example—so that it could be deployed to all 32 arenas. The virtual ads were then tested through consumer media research lab MediaScience and consulting firm Elevate Sports, and the “numbers came back extremely positive,” according to Wachtel. In addition to the ads, the NHL as soon as this season plans on also using the space to “produce” the games, Wachtel said, such as by showcasing players’ names and teams’ colors on them after a goal is scored, and perhaps later down the road, gambling odds.
For now, up to 10 sponsors can be simultaneously displayed on the DEDs during 30-second increments, and they are shuffled via an automated playlist throughout the 60 minutes of playing time. The new format gives brands more room to include marketing messages and calls to action as opposed to prior seasons, when fans watching from home generally would have just seen a clutter of 24 static brand logos (some sponsors, though, have opted to use the DEDs to showcase their logos multiple times).
Prior to this season, NHL fans watching on TV used to see the same ads as those in the arena, as seen here.
The new format also offers much more flexibility, as marketers can use different ads for each of the 30-second increments. With the holidays nearing, for instance, Hyundai plans to debut DED ads this month that promote its Winter Getaway Sales Event, according to Kevin Stafford, senior VP, client director at Canvas Worldwide, which oversees Hyundai’s regional advertising. Hyundai usually gets three to five minutes of game time on the DEDs, which is comparable to other DED sponsors. In terms of return on investment, “I think the NHL did a very good job of putting together an opportunity that did not go dropping our valuation, nor do I necessarily feel that it made it through the roof in terms of what we had,” Stafford said.
Chevrolet has gone even further, developing virtual ads for each of the three periods and, if necessary, overtime. The General Motors brand has submitted at least 15-20 variations of DED ads in total, according to Emily Weaver, manager, Chevrolet brand partnerships. One such ad included the URL for Chevrolet’s website, its logo, as well as the names of several of its electric vehicle models. The brand has a DED deal with the Detroit Red Wings that allows for its ads to be shown on the opposing team’s broadcasts as well.
Chevrolet has introduced several variations of ads, including the one seen above during a game between the Detroit Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings
“While we do plan to maximize ROI from this new medium, we’ll also remain cognizant and protective of the consumer experience,” Weaver said in an emailed statement. “We’re constantly observing games and other advertisers’ executions, and scrutinizing our own work. We want to utilize the full extent of the format—regardless of what the message is—without negatively impacting fans’ viewing experience.”
That the dasherboards are part of gameplay was a huge selling point for advertisers because that makes it more difficult for the fans to avoid them, unlike during a traditional commercial break when a fan might step away from the TV for a snack or bathroom break.
But the dasherboards being a part of gameplay also provided its technical challenges.
At the beginning of the season, the DEDs would sometimes malfunction when they came in direct contact with something such as a stick, puck or skate. That may have played a role in the infamous five-second glitch that went viral on Twitter early in the season.
“Sometimes you can only train it after you’ve seen an issue,” Gambrell told Ad Age. “It’s to be expected that you’ll have a few glitches, those will smooth out and you’ll have fewer.”
While the technical glitches have largely subsided, fans have complained that the animation of certain ads distracts from the play. About 15% of DED ads contain two-to-three-second animations, according to Wachtel, and fans on social media have lamented a particular Enterprise ad that shows a car driving by the boards before rolling out the message, “Connecting you to the game you love.”
“Sometimes people say, ‘Oh just as there was a big play I saw a car driving by,’” Wachtel said. “Yes, that does happen. It’s a rare occasion that happens.” Wachtel said the NHL and Supponor were working on making the animations smoother. Limiting the ad transitions to play stoppages is not an option because “there will be times where there (are) no stoppages of play for four to five minutes,” Wachtel said. “It would be impossible to run a business that way when you have so many marketing partners that you have to fulfill.”
Enterprise, a North American sponsor of the NHL, declined comment for this story. The NHL emphasized that the social media complaints were subsiding—which Ad Age confirmed via data from the analytics tool TweetBinder—and it doesn’t appear that the new ads are dramatically impacting ratings. NHL viewership has been relatively stable so far this season, with an average of 466,000 viewers aged 2 and up tuning into the first 13 nationally televised games, down from 486,000 through 13 games last year, according to Nielsen. The NHL averaged 444,000 viewers throughout the entire 2021-22 regular season.
The NHL spent three years constructing a business model for all of this to work and is confident it can be applied to other leagues as well.
“I think the NHL has probably done more work than any other of our clients being sensitive to what the sponsors and broadcaster want but also what the fans are going to be comfortable with,” Gambrell said. “We kind of cut our teeth in European soccer, there are almost no limits to what some of this branding will do. Some of it is quite in your face. I think here they’re trying to be more respectful to the context and history of the game.”
The league sells the virtual ads for national broadcasts on ESPN and TNT while the teams handle inventory for their regional broadcasts. The rates for the DEDs are negotiated individually between the sponsors and the team or the league based on existing sponsorship packages. Brands must have existing sponsorships with teams and/or the league, in some capacity, to be featured on the DEDs, and it appears a majority of team sponsors who already advertise on the physical boards have DED activations as well. The teams and NHL also have their own DED ads, which often highlight the league’s app and social media pages, as well as a team’s ticket offerings.
“That was a huge negotiation as you can imagine with 24 marketers, 24 agencies for every club to be able to say, ‘Ok, you used to get this board, you still get it but now I am going to give you two minutes, three minutes, four minutes—whatever amount of time they negotiate with their brands,” Wachtel said.
The NHL made it clear to sponsors that the DED ads were not being sold as media and that the league would not let sponsors pull 30-second TV commercials just because of the new ad format.
“If it cannibalizes local and national media partners, then that would be penny wise and pound foolish,” Wachtel said.
Last season the NHL brought in a league-record $1.4 billion in sponsorship revenue compared to $1 billion the prior season, according to a person familiar with the league’s finances, and the windfall could grow due to the DED deals. The league has ramped up in-game advertising efforts over the last decade, with on-ice virtual ads, virtual ads on the glass, helmet ads and limited ads on jerseys.
There are five dedicated areas for the DEDs: behind each net and in all three zones of the ice. For regional broadcasts, the teams can split up the areas any way they want. The Florida Panthers, for instance, prefer to have one sponsor on the DEDs at a time, which is referred to as a “full takeover.” Ad Age observed the Ottawa Senators feature up to five advertisers on the DEDs at a time. For now, the virtual ads are only visible from the main camera angle used for broadcasts; when other camera angles are employed, such as during replays, fans watching from home will see the standard dasherboards. (Wachtel said the NHL would not replace the arena dasherboards with digital signage because it would be too much of a distraction to the players.)
“We thought it looked less cluttered on broadcasts,” Panthers Chief Revenue Officer Shawn Thornton said of the Panthers’ “full takeover” approach. “I love the flexibility the league has given us with how we’re able to go to market with it,” added Thornton, who played 705 NHL games before transitioning to the business side.
The Florida Panthers opted for the “full takeover” approach when it came to the DEDs, as seen with this JetBlue ad.
The “full takeovers” are the most attractive offering for brands. But they also limit the opportunity for teams to convert all partners into DEDs.
On game nights, the Panthers are in constant contact with the NHL, Supponor and its broadcaster, Bally Sports, to ensure things run smoothly. The ads effectively are funneled from a centralized hub to each broadcast and are deployed similarly to a music playlist.
The broadcaster has the final discretion as to whether to turn off the DED ads if they are malfunctioning. Ad Age observed this happen during at least two games this season, though it was unclear what caused the DED ads to be turned off.
ESPN, which is in the second year of a $2.8 billion broadcasting pact with the NHL, has been “pleased with the partnership and the troubleshooting we’ve had to do,” according to Sean Hanrahan, senior VP, sports brand solutions at Disney. “It seems to have been pretty seamless.”
Eventually, the NHL and Supponor hope to expand the DEDs beyond Canada and the U.S. so sponsors overseas can market to their local audiences even during an NHL broadcast. Gambrell, the Supponor CEO, said his company has the ability to make all virtual ads interactive for viewers watching on a touchscreen tablet, although that hasn’t been introduced yet in the NHL.
“This is the biggest thing we’ve ever done,” Gambrell said. “This is the biggest thing we think the industry has ever done, so all hands on deck.”
In this article:
Mark Fischer is a web editor at Ad Age. He previously worked in sports media as a digital editor and writer for the New York Post and New York Daily News.