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Monday, July 15, 2024

NHL Draft and the Sphere Are About to Make History Together in Vegas

  • League officials call the next-generation venue ‘the biggest canvas you’ll ever paint on.’
  • The event’s live broadcast and unpredictable nature differ heavily from concerts held at the Sphere.
Jeff Bottari for the NHL

Nine months ago, the Sphere in Las Vegas broke all sorts of new ground in entertainment and venue technology, immersing music fans in a multisensory experience unlike anything else in the world.

Now, that innovation hits the sports world in a major way. 

The NHL is staging its 2024 draft Friday and Saturday at the $2.3 billion Sphere, marking the first major sporting event held entirely at the venue. Historically something of an understated affair, in no small part due to the minor league development many draft selections still require, this year’s draft will also become the first Sphere event to be shown on live television. That coverage on ESPN advances well beyond prior concerts there by U2, Phish, and Dead & Company that—despite widespread media coverage and social sharing of event footage—have essentially been just in-person events.

“This is the biggest canvas you’ll ever paint on,” Steve Mayer, NHL chief content officer, tells Front Office Sports, referencing the Sphere’s 160,000-square-foot interior screen, as well as the 580,000-square-foot “Exosphere” forming the building’s exterior. “We have no doubt that we’ll catch the eye of the world, and have our viral moments. The idea is to make everything involved in this look as big and dramatic as we can. This obviously isn’t going to look like any old draft.”

Some Inspiration From U2

Mayer attended the very first Sphere event, a U2 concert last September that was the beginning of a 40-show residency by the Irish rock superstars, and immediately fixated on the concept of putting the NHL in there somehow. And despite the fact that UFC was the first sports entity to book an event at the Sphere, with the upcoming fight scheduled for September, the NHL then jumped the line with its draft.

Like the aforementioned bands, the NHL worked closely with Sphere Studios—a California-based operation part of building owner Sphere Entertainment Co. that is controlled by New York Knicks and Rangers owner James Dolan—dedicated to helping create content for the venue, and also collaborated with third-party developers. But unlike the carefully planned sequences and cues central to any of the Sphere concerts, Mayer and the NHL have had to prepare for the many unknowns core to a live sports event, even one as organized as the draft.

“We’ve all been learning together about how to make the Sphere work as a sports venue,” Mayer says. “It’s simply a different animal, and we have to be prepared for every possible contingency.”

In addition to programming video and graphics for both the interior screen and the Exosphere, the NHL will also have Aura, the Sphere’s artificial-intelligence-powered “humanoid robot,” introduce top draft prospects as they arrive at the venue.

Coming: War Rooms, New Threads

The 2024 NHL draft will also be the last before the league shifts to a decentralized model where teams’ general managers and scouts stay in their home markets, similar to the NFL and other major sports leagues. For years, the NHL draft has served as a key offseason convention within the sport, often drawing a level of media coverage that doesn’t exist during the season. But logistical and cost concerns among teams prompted the shift.

The draft, meanwhile, will also be the first major showcase for the league’s new, Fanatics-designed uniforms as well as the first such event for the newly relocated Utah Hockey Club.

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