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Inside the NHL’s Evolution as a Media Company

As the NHL looks to continue growth, in-house content serves as a way to do just that.

Adam White

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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.

LISTEN: Coyotes’ Marissa O’Connor on Building a Personality-Driven Brand Social Presence 

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.

READ MORE: Executive Buy-In Helps Propel Dallas Stars’ Digital Strategy 

Knowing that avid fans are coming to NHL.com 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.”

Adam is the Founder and CEO of Front Office Sports. A University of Miami Alum, Adam has worked for opendorse, the Fiesta Bowl, and the University of Miami Athletic Department. He can be reached at adam@frntofficesport.com.

Digital Media

Overtime Brings Billboard And Investment News to NBA All-Star Weekend

Overtime, the digital media brand specializing in high school sports, put some of the top teenage basketball players on a billboard in Charlotte.

Jeff Eisenband

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Photo via Overtime

NBA All-Stars don’t want overtime on Sunday night. It’s clear 48 minutes is enough for them.

But the All-Stars and the NBA can’t avoid Overtime off the court in Charlotte.

Overtime — the digital media brand specializing in high school sports, not the extra period after regulation — has established its presence at NBA All-Star Weekend. Fans entering the city this weekend are driving right past Overtime’s “All-Stars of the Future” billboard, which features 10 of the nation’s top high school players — LaMelo Ball being the most recognizable — split between East and West (see full list at bottom of article).

“They’re true superstars in their own right,” says Overtime President and Co-Founder Zack Weiner. “I think there’s sort of this love for them that’s insatiable. When you first read about it, ‘Whoa, a high school kid on a billboard,’ it sounds weird and then you’re like, ‘Wait, it makes sense. These guys are global superstars. Why should they not be on billboards?’

“For our audience, it’s just cool. It’s these guys they’ve been watching for the past couple of years and to see them in Charlotte, around the NBA All-Star Game, when obviously, they’re going to be All-Stars in a few years, people that recognize them, it’s why they love Overtime. You feel like you’re on the wave before it’s taken off.”

Weiner, 26, and Overtime CEO and Co-Founder Dan Porter, 52, don’t look like traditional media executives at NBA All-Star Weekends. For the interview, the two walk around The Westin Charlotte in Overtime hoodies, showing off the brand’s merchandise in a hotel full of NBA brass.

“We want to be everywhere,” Porter says. “We want them to be like, ‘I see you guys everywhere. I see you on my Instagram feed, I see you on YouTube, I see you on television, I see you on the billboard.’ We’re building the biggest sports network in the world.”

Kawhi Leonard happens to walk by during the interview. He says hello to the Overtime duo and flashes what some might consider a rare smile.

“He recognizes Overtime,” Weiner immediately says.

“You see Trae Young walk through the tunnel in his Overtime sweatshirt,” Porter adds, referencing a recent game entrance by the Hawks rookie. “We out here.”

Before starting Overtime in fall 2016, Porter served as Head of Digital at WME with Weiner working on the digital team. In early 2017, Overtime raised $2.5 million in seed funding and in February 2018, the brand announced another $9.5 million in funding, with capital coming from Kevin Durant, among others.

Just this past Thursday, Overtime revealed it has received $23 million in Series B funding, which includes investments from current and former NBA players Carmelo Anthony, Baron Davis and Victor Oladipo. Porter told Variety the company has a valuation of around $100 million.

“I would say that that we’re very strategic about almost everything we do,” Weiner says of the investment announcement corresponding with NBA All-Star Weekend.

Davis can give some perspective as an investor.

“They’ve kind of got their finger on the pulse and these guys are doing a good job of growing that community and looking to be disruptive,” he says, when asked about the billboard. “You don’t find too many young companies like that.”

Just over two years into its lifespan, Overtime is starting to see some of its former high school basketball subjects reach the NBA level (it should be noted Overtime considers its four current main verticals basketball, football, soccer, and esports). Players like Young tip their cap to Overtime, which was on their stories before they were household names.

“When Dan and I started a company that wasn’t something that we proactively thought about,” Weiner says. “I’ve realized that it’s happened. I think it’s taken off even more than we thought in terms of filling content with them, them repping our gear, them retweeting us, posting on Instagram. They definitely recognize sort of the implicit partnership that we’ve had throughout their careers, starting in high school.”

You might have been introduced to Zion Williamson this season, but Overtime fans have been watching Williamson’s dunks for a couple years now. 

For the players on the billboard, this is part of that conveyor belt. Other than Ball, this is a huge boost to these teenagers’ PR campaigns. Overtime is the brand investing in youth basketball content at a grassroots level.

“Some of the guys are more well-known and some are less,” Weiner says of players Overtime covers. “But a core value of what we do is bring recognition to these kids and help build their platform. I mean those guys [on the billboard], I believe will all be in the NBA, but there are some players that we’ve covered that won’t and there’s a lot of value in them growing their social followings and building their brands.”

One of the players, Anthony Edwards, is among the top senior high school recruits in the country, but Mikey Williams is an eighth grader, just starting to get his name out there.

In Charlotte, Overtime is credentialed for all standard NBA media events. One could argue Overtime is a rival to the NBA and its partners, from a content perspective. After all, they draped a billboard over the city hosting the NBA’s premier tourist event.

Porter and Weiner don’t see it that way.

“With retired commissioners, we have an amazing relationship,” Porter laughs, referencing David Stern, who invested in Overtime’s seed round.

“In terms of a formal business partnership, there’s nothing right now, but I was talking to people at the league and they love Overtime,” Weiner says. “They understand the importance to the young community. I think it’s about timing when and if there’s something to be done officially.”

READ MORE: Overtime’s Pop-Up Showcases Commerce Potential for Digital Brands

It might take a few years. Maybe when the players on the Charlotte billboard are in the NBA, that’ll be the time for Overtime and the NBA to partner. After all, those players will remember who brought them to NBA All-Star Weekend first.

For reference, these are the players included on Overtime’s billboard, with their descriptions, as provided by Overtime:

Mikey Williams – Mikey Williams is the best 8th grader in the country. He’s from California and is known for his crazy dunks and LeBron comparisons.

Jalen Green – The most athletic junior in the nation! Jalen Green is from California and dunks on everyone.

RJ Hampton – The Texas point guard can do everything on the court. People say he could play in the NBA right now!!

Cassius Stanley – Cassius is a senior from California. Since 9th grade he has been throwing down viral dunks. He legit floats in the air.

LaMelo Ball – The son of LaVar and brother of Lonzo Ball. LaMelo is a senior at Spire Institute in Ohio. He is from California. LaMelo is the most famous high school basketball player ever. He played professionally overseas last year.

Cole Anthony – The son of NBA player Greg Anthony. Cole is a point guard at Oak Hill Academy in VA. He’s from NYC and is regarded as the best point guard in the country.

Jalen Lecque – Senior at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. Jalen is from New York and committed to NC State. He is the most athletic player in the country.

Anthony Edwards – From Georgia and committed to Georgia. Anthony Edwards has bursted onto the seen as a top guard in the nation. He could be the #1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Scottie Lewis – From New Jersey and committed to the University of Florida. Scottie Lewis is super talented and has gotten comparisons to Kobe Bryant.

Aidan Igiehon – Aidan is originally from Ireland. He has become famous for his power game and his nickname “The Irish Hulk”. Aidan is committed to Louisville.

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Digital Media

Channeling Napoleon Dynamite a Success for Blazers All-Star Campaign

A video featuring Blazers guards CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard helped secure Lillard a place in the game and exemplifies the team’s content strategy.

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ content team is hoping to extend its connection to the team’s fans with this week’s NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte.

This weekend will provide an opportunity to dive deeper into some Blazers’ lives, including guard Damian Lillard, said Aaron Grossman, the director of content for Portland.

The All-Star campaign started with a video to get Lillard and teammate CJ McCollum voted into the All-Star game. Ultimately, Lillard was voted onto the roster and team captain Lebron James selected him in the All-Star draft.

Grossman said every team seeks a way to creatively promote their players, but it sometimes seems like each team uses the same concepts over and over.

This year, the Blazers sought out a workaround to come up with a different way to promote McCollum and Lillard for the All-Star Game. The pair are good friends in real life and staples on the court in Portland.

READ MORE: How West Virginia’s Digital Team Created a Blueprint for a Heisman Campaign

“They both took to the idea and were very receptive to it from the beginning,” Grossman said. “It didn’t require a lot of back and forth, we presented the concept and during the shoot, they were willing to do things above and beyond what we expected.

“The commitment to their roles and personality really shine through and that’s why it was as successful as it was.”

The video showcased the pair’s friendship and competitiveness as they campaigned for each other to make the All-Star roster, culminating with McCollum dancing like Napoleon Dynamite.

Grossman was happy with the performance and said it was difficult to compare to previous All-Star campaigns as the voting procedures have changed. The video had more than 700,000 views across the Blazers social channels and more than 80,000 engagements.

“Comparing isn’t apples to apples,” he said. “But the views and interpretation of it, the actual commentary and appreciation, was certainly better than in years past.”

The success was in large part because the players were cooperative and wanted to see each other be successful, Grossman said. The content team often tries to showcase the players’ individual personalities and the All-Star campaign video was an extension of the normal strategy. Grossman still credits the players with their commitment to cooperate beyond the normal commitments.

“It was something they could have chosen not to participate in,” Grossman said. “We try to entertain in a unique voice that represents our city and team. The All-Star is a great opportunity to promote for a specific reason and cause.”

The Blazers social team met this week to prepare for the on-the-ground strategy in Charlotte. With two players in North Carolina for the weekend, the team is preparing for a more in-depth look at players lives beyond game day.

READ MORE: How Rakuten Is Leaving Its Mark on Steph Curry’s Underrated Tour

The content team will have three people at the All-Star Game, a social representative, sideline reporter, and videographer. Lillard will be in the main All-Star Game, while Lillard will be joined by teammate Seth Curry in the 3-Point Contest.

Grossman said two players in a single place for multiple days gives the content team the chance to share stories they haven’t been able to in the past. He’s excited to continue the All-Star campaign into this weekend.

A focus of the content will be on Lillard and his interactions with the NBA’s other stars in Charlotte.

“He’s our guy and it demonstrates his place with NBA’s greatest players and any of his interactions will be important to capture,” Grossman said. “He’s earned the respect of the best players and coaches and media and anyway we can capture where he stands with his peers is really important to showcase the player he’s become.”

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Digital Media

Bleacher Report Is Focused on the Second Generation of Social Media

As consumer habits continue to change, the company is looking to take advantage by blending content with experiential and commerce opportunities.

Adam White

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As Bleacher Report gears up for NBA All-Star weekend, the publisher sees itself in a position to take what is digital and make it physical.

This starts with the company’s House of Highlights activation in Charlotte, where there will be everything from a studio and a gaming room, to a basketball gym and live video programming.

The first large-scale activation of its kind for the sub-brand, the opportunity comes at a time when Howard Mittman, CRO and CMO of Bleacher Report sees a shifting landscape when it comes to the digital media space that he wants to make sure they take advantage of.

“This activation is based on this sentiment that I’ve been increasingly more interested in when it comes to how we take things from the digital world and create experiences in the physical world.”

Last’s year’s activation at the All-Star game in L.A. was the first example of this shift and one that started what has become a multistep process of rolling out B/R’s experience practice and their series of live events.

While the goal is to take the digital and make it physical, they will also be taking the physical and making it digital.

“What we are essentially doing is building out this enormous footprint to serve as a physical set that we are using to just capture social content,” said Mittman talking about what their content strategy looked like over the course of the weekend. “Although we expect more than 4,000 people to show up over the course of the day, we are focused on how we can use the space to create content that will manifest itself online to our 40 million or so social followers.”

READ MORE: GolfPass Could Set Standard in 21st-Century Sports Media

Not only has the live experience side of the business powered content, but it has also helped when it comes to partnerships with brands like Intel, Ruffles, McDonald’s and more.

No longer just trying to sell digital assets, they are able to bring what Mittman calls a “holistic set of solutions” to the table for partners.

In just a few years, they’ve been able to change the conversation from trying to pitch partners to finding solutions for partners.

“We find ourselves in the position now where we’re going to ask them (partners) what their challenges are, what their needs are, and then almost reverse engineer from where it is that they want to get to at the end of the campaign,” added Mittman. “This allows us to pick and pull the different aspects or elements from inside our arsenal that work for them or that they’re interested in.”

It’s this process that has allowed the company to more than double the revenue for just its All-Star activation alone.

Along with the House of Highlights presence, the company will also be showcasing its new World Tour line, of which it just recently dropped the first collaboration of the line with Dwyane Wade.

Mittman declined to say how many units the collaboration had sold, but added some color saying that it “blew up” and that between this collaboration and others they have run with The Roots, 21 Savage, and Vin Staples has created an “interesting mix of content and commerce” for the brand.

With content powering the engine, Bleacher Report and Mittman, in particular, see commerce as an additional revenue opportunity that allows them to not only provide athletes with a whole new way to create buzz, but also gives the publisher a whole new content experience.

“A traditional content experience allows you to capture content and sell against it. This allows us to capture content, sell ads against that, and then share in the revenue opportunities with the athlete or celebrity.”

Mittman believes that this type of opportunity will change how athletes approach some of their marketing and press opportunities.

“If you’re an A-list celebrity or athlete and you’re doing a press tour, do you want to do a magazine shoot where they don’t pay you or do you want to do a content and commerce shoot where you have more exposure and have the opportunity to monetize it.”

This has caught the eye of others too. Mentioning that he received multiple emails from groups outside looking to sell the merch alongside B/R inside their activation, becoming some evolution of a DTC company isn’t out of the question.

“If we can start to be known as a shop that is able to offer DTC connections and consumer experiences not just with the content we make but with the commerce we can drive, I have a sense that it will probably start to evolve out into an entirely different category of business relative to what a traditional sports and commerce experience looks like.”

As more of these opportunities pop up, they become reasons in which consumers either have to get the B/R app, experience it, and even purchase in the app.

READ MORE: Bleacher Report’s New Revenue Streams Showcase Publishers Capabilities Beyond Its Digital Walls

And while Mittman is bullish on the experiences and the commerce revenue opportunities, the platform remains B/R’s biggest focus thanks to what they feel can be the gateway to the second generation of social media.

“For us, the biggest bet we are making is that the first generation of social media was about connecting you to the world and that the second generation is about connecting you to your world. That’s what we are trying to do. We are not going to be Facebook, we do not want to compete with them, but we do firmly believe that we have the chance to create a more niche-based platform for people who love sports and crave it in different forms.”

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