How the NHL is taking content-based marketing and partnering beyond video

NHL’s Keith Wachtel at Dx3.

TORONTO – If you want to get Canadians to attend a morning keynote on the second day of a conference, make it about hockey.

Canada’s national sport was front and centre for the opening keynote on day two of the Dx3 digital marketing conference, and Keith Wachtel, executive vice-president for global partnerships with the National Hockey League, had a full house as he discussed the evolution of partnerships in the digital age.

Wachtel began by challenging the audience to go beyond digital media when it comes to thinking about content.

“It’s everywhere,” said Wachtel. “It’s the distribution platform. Think about content more broadly, and how you can use content to drive partnerships.”

As a US$3.6 billion business, the NHL is always looking for new ways to leverage its content to its 68 million fans across North America and 744 million television viewers. A real focus for the NHL, said Wachtel, has been growing the NHL’s own brand.

While everyone watches the Superbowl no matter the teams that are playing because it’s an event, in the past the NHL brand has been overshadowed by the individual teams. For many, for example, Hockey Night in Canada was about the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“One of the great things about our new partnership with Sportsnet is that it’s about choice,” said Wachtel, with more games broadcast so you can watch whatever team you want. “We need to start to build scale. If you’re a Leafs fan, don’t turn off the TV because they’re not in the playoffs.”

The NHL is focusing on building scale around six areas: events, original content, partner amplification, traditional media, digital media and technology.

There has been an explosion of new events in recent years, and Wachtel said the NHL has been focused on building bigger events to engage with fans throughout a long season. Where they just had the playoffs, all-star game, player awards and the draft before, the outdoor games have added more pillars to draw in fans and provide marketing opportunities for partners.

“All these events are providing windows to talk to our fans where they are, when they are, in our voice,” said Wachtel. “And they give our partners a moment in time to activate against in different ways.”

It's a busy season of events, and marketing opportunities for the NHL.
It’s a busy season of events, and marketing opportunities for the NHL.

The events provide a pillar to build new, compelling original content around, such as the Road to the Winter Classic series on HBO and Sportsnet. The NHL then took the idea beyond HBO’s limited distribution, working with broadcast startup Epix to shoot a series around the NHL’s Stadium Series outdoor games as well, and make the video available for free on so anyone that wants to can watch it.

“Games are played every night,” said Wachtel. “We’re always asking how do we slow things down? How do we tell a story?”

Partner amplification is another key pillar, and Wachtel said what companies are looking for from the NHL is changing.

“When you think about content integration and partnerships, when it’s real and authentic, it’s effective,” said Wachtel.”That’s what marketers are looking for; not to just slap their logo on something. Partners aren’t looking to just use the shield and be the official XYZ of the NHL; they want engagement.”

There’s probably no better example than the Kraft Hockeyville event, which sees communities compete and Canadians vote for which small town will host an NHL pre-season game, be featured on Hockey Night in Canada and receive funding for arena upgrades.

“It’s about creating content in communities,” said Wachtel.

Technology is probably the major initiative at the NHL right now, said Wachtel, as a way to engage fans in a deeper way through all touch points.

“Technology is completely changing the landscape of sports, and the consumption of sports,” said Wachtel.

The NHL’s newest technology partnership is with popular wearable video company GoPro. They had a real interest in putting cameras on players. You can’t do that during a game, but they have worked with Rogers to develop a referee cam, and they did some testing with players during the recent All Star game.

“Think about what you can see on the ice, what you’re hearing from the players. It’s just really good, authentic content that no one has ever seen before,” said Wachtel. “Technology is a great way for avid fans to get into the game more, and for casual fans that want to engage we can slow it down for them.”

The NHL is working with Sportvision on puck and player tracking technology, and a recent partnership with SAP sees the NHL using SAP’s Hana cloud platform to power a new interactive statistics engine on

“The statistics on our web site before were almost in Excel format. Fans want more than that,” said Wachtel. “They want to sort it the way they want, or see how Gretzky compares to Crosby. SAP’s software enables us to put all the statistics the league has back 100 years into the database, and present them with a new look and feel. It’s all enabled by SAP and an organic partnership that has made engagement with the sport even better.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras is a technology journalist with IT World Canada and a member of the IT Business team. He began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada and the channel for Computer Dealer News. His writing has also appeared in the Vancouver Sun & the Ottawa Citizen.

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