Inside the NHL’s Evolution as a Media Company

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For over 100 years, the NHL has brought the world’s best hockey to rinks around the world.

A lot has changed over that century, though. From stick technology to broadcast technology, the league has evolved with the times. One of the biggest changes is how leagues like the NHL now fit into the overall content mix similar to that of traditional media companies, broadcasters, and publishers.

With the NBA leading the way in 1999 with NBA TV, all four of the major North American-based sports leagues would find themselves with TV networks by 2009.

Armed with TV networks and websites on the back of the dot-com boom of the early 2000s, leagues — the NHL included — were no longer just governing bodies. They were their own media companies.

Fast-forward to today and across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, the NHL has almost 9.5 million followers.

So, what’s the significance to all this? The ability to use the collective reach between the league’s social and linear channels to be able to distribute owned content and amplify its own internal marketing goals.

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Currently, one of those goals is finding ways to not only create content around someone’s first experience at a hockey game, but make sure the people with whom that content would resonate are getting it.

“When we were trying to figure out the next series of production programs we were going to put together, we looked at the fact that you always hear people saying, ‘I went to my first game and it was incredible,’” said Steve Mayer, the NHL’s chief content officer and EVP. “Because of that, we thought this would be a great time to take advantage of finding a way to showcase what it was like for people to experience their first NHL game.”

Thus, “NHL First Timer” was born.

Slated to start with six episodes, the series features the affable Paul Bissonnette taking both celebrities and average joes to their first-ever hockey game.

The first episode, featuring Jalen Ramsey, has already reached over 5.4 million people and is closing in on one million views across the NHL’s different platforms.

Not shot like a show in a multi-million dollar studio, Mayer credits a personality like Bissonnette’s to being a driving force to the success of the series in an era where who is in front of the camera is more important than how much money was spent producing it.

“While the content is still high-quality, the reason why people are going to watch is because of the personality. With so much content currently available on any number of channels, personality is what cuts through the noise.”

And it is this personality-driven content that the NHL has invested in and will continue to double down on, especially as it lives on the league’s social channels.

“I don’t think people are watching stuff because of how beautifully it is shot; they are watching stuff because of Paul and because of Jalen. We will always produce high-quality content, but this is definitely way more personality-driven than some of the other stuff, and that’s what we’re focused on.”

Beyond the evolution of how it produces content in-house, the league is also looking to expand its reach by working with other distribution partners who bring the content to areas in which the league may not have a strong hold on.

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Knowing that avid fans are coming to no matter what, Mayer and his team have allocated resources that include paid media towards the amplification of the “NHL First Timer” content to where the “first-timers” might actually be.

“We are trying to align ourselves with a couple of other sites that are extremely mainstream and are a little off-channel for us because this kind of content is what they’re interested in, and truthfully, they have the people we are trying to reach interacting with their content on a daily basis.”

From studio shows to a Paul Bissonnette and social media-driven show, the NHL’s content evolution has come — thanks to its commitment and investment.

“The reason why I came to the league was to set up with, essentially, what would be a media/production company that would produce high-quality material. We’ve put forth a big investment in both time and budget to grow our capabilities to where we are today. With Heidi Browning as our CMO, we now have a lot of the pieces in place to be able to execute.”