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Can Baseball's Geeks Make Hockey Popular?

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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There's an old adage that the two industries that spur technological innovation in media are porn and sports. A groundbreaking deal between the NHL and MLB's digital media arm is proving at least the latter is still true.

The NHL and MLB Advanced Media have announced a new partnership that will have wide-reaching effects on hockey fans and all sports programming. Baseball's media arm, which has long been the industry leader in digital streaming technology, will now spin-off into its own entity, BAM Tech, valued at between $3 billion and $5 billion, according to league executives. As part of the six-year, $1.2 billion deal, it will take over all of the NHL's digital and broadcast operations, from the NHL Network to live-streaming out-of-market games to fan-experience apps, and the NHL will receive a stake in the company of between 7 and 10 percent. MLBAM will pay $100 million a year in rights fees to the NHL, while the NHL's share in the entity is approximated at $300 million.

First and foremost, this partnership will greatly improve the fan experience. MLB's digital streaming platform, MLB.TV, is light years ahead of its counterparts' offerings, while the MLB At Bat app is pretty much the only enjoyable, league-produced sports app on the market. The NHL's app will get a much-needed overhaul, and its streaming service, NHL GameCenter LIVE, should see marked improvement. GameCenter is clunky, frustrating and carries a real-time lag that makes it all but impossible to follow games on the service and social media simultaneously -- which flies in the face of the goal to get fans engaged and sharing during games. MLBAM has the technology to fix all these problems; its track record speaks for itself. Other companies have attempted to build their streaming infrastructure in-house, only to eventually throw in the towel and call on MLB. The baseball league's technology powers HBO Now, WatchESPN, NCAA March Madness Live and WWE Network. 

In addition to a digital overhaul, MLBAM will take over the NHL's broadcast operations, including NHL Network and NHL Center Ice, the league's out-of-market subscription package. If MLB Network is any indication, that will mean a much more robust lineup of original content, ancillary programming and athlete features. I'm particularly excited to see what the creative minds behind the viral video site Cut4 can do with the gloriously weird personalities of hockey players. (I'm officially endorsing a space-themed talk show co-hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ilya Bryzgalov.)

MLBAM may revolutionize both the coverage and viewing experience of NHL games themselves, whether through streaming or traditional cable packages. Its big data and analytics projects are remarkable; last year, MLBAM introduced new technology being piloted in a handful of ballparks to track and analyze every play on the field, opening up an entirely new group of metrics, particularly defensive statistics, to shed light on previously unanswerable questions. Applied to hockey, this level of data can be used by scouts evaluating players and broadcasters contextualizing plays on the ice. This season saw the official debut of StatCast, in all its in-game stat-tracking glory. 

The partnership may even strengthen the NHL's in-arena experience. The MLB.com Ballpark app is a great stadium companion, with concession maps, driving directions and parking information, mobile food ordering, easy social media sharing, and a journal feature that tracks the win-loss record for games you've attended. Those bells and whistles also come with some core functionality: the ability buy and store tickets from any source and upgrade seats when you're actually in the stadium. Anyone familiar with Hockey Twitter knows just how meaningful these features would be to the NHL's core group of highly engaged fans, in addition to opening up avenues to new viewers. 

While the deal is certain to be good for fans, it might also benefit players. Assuming this is treated as a television rights partnership on the NHL's end, the dollars from the rights fees would be treated as hockey-related revenue, which would increase the salary cap. That's more money to spend on acquiring new players and keeping old stars, in a league that sees inordinate player turnover after immediate success; not even Stanley Cup champions are immune to roster reshuffling to stay under the cap. A higher cap would hopefully mean more permanence for the biggest names on the most popular jerseys, which could go along way to helping the NHL catch up to the other major sports leagues in star power and marketability.

MLBAM has long been at the cutting edge of media innovation, enabling cord-cutters and driving the over-the-top revolution. Let's hope it can drive hockey's progress, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net