You can bet your bottom dollar that the NHL and its broadcast partners are busy burning the midnight oil, brainstorming and preparing television strategies for the upcoming 2020 NHL playoffs, a playoffs that will be unlike any other.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has promised hockey fans a Stanley Cup playoffs on TV like you have never watched them before. But how will it actually look and sound to hockey fans watching at home?
To keep fans entertained on television, Bettman said the NHL has been pitched by “no fewer than 54 companies on various technologies to surround the games in the empty stands.”
“You have to see what you can do that will be a little different. I mean, one of the things our head of events and content Steve Mayer is focusing on when it comes to playing without fans is ‘What do we do so the experience conveys itself well on television?’” said Bettman.
“We will create an environment that will be exciting, will be entertaining, will be consistent with a competition that has integrity,” Bettman said. “It won’t be too gimmicky, but it’ll set the right tone and make it a good television product, which is what we’re ultimately gonna be for the conclusion of this year’s competition.”
According to Jim Morris of CBC Sports, games will be broadcast Olympic-style with commentators working remotely. Media will have no direct access to players or team officials. Interviews with players and coaches will be done through video conference technology like Zoom.
Additionally, Steve Simmons recently reported there would be no media allowed in the hub cities at all. With today’s technology, that shouldn’t be an issue, and you may not even notice media are doing their job remotely.
Visually, there’s unlimited choice as to where to place the TV cameras and the number of them that you’d be able to use is virtually unlimited. Look for new angles and views we haven’t seen before. We should also see some form of live streaming from practices at the hub cities during the playoffs.
But how will that look and feel locally for a nationally televised broadcast? Will they be able to connect and integrate locals fans from each team at a national level? With three games a day during the early rounds, game times for the Capitals may vary.
We will also likely see many new means for in-arena advertising. Often used to cover blocks of unused arena seats, we may even see advertising tarps cover all or parts of the empty seats in arenas when NHL action resumes. But will televised games be too cluttered?
There has also been discussion in recent days regarding the possibility of multiple channels broadcasting a single game, with both audio and visual options on each channel.
However, the biggest unknown will be sound.
Look for the league and its broadcast partners to implement numerous strategies to connect with fans during each and every broadcast. Apps that collect fan reactions at home via their cell phones and relay the audio to a central server for broadcast use are already on the market.
Providing crowd noise into empty stadiums and television broadcasts has been traced back to 2013 when a stadium in Tunisia allowed for 90,000 fans to cheer through an app and loudspeakers following the Arab Spring.
More recently a company has developed an app that allows fans to cheer remotely for their teams playing in empty stadiums. The Remote Cheerer system lets fans watching games on television in their living rooms. The app will allow fans to pick from “cheer, chant, clap, shout, groan and boo,” to broadcast through the stadium loudspeakers.
The German Bundesliga has been broadcasting with artificial crowd noise, and the English Premier League offered the same type of feed. In Denmark, more than 30,000 fans used Zoom to cheer on AGF Aarhus through screens around the field.
Spain’s LaLiga became the latest major European soccer league to resume following a Coronavirus-enforced suspension. The first match was the Seville derby, contested between Sevilla and Real Betis, and as with all other matches, played behind-closed-doors.
Viewers who tuned in to matches were be treated to virtual stadium effects, digital crowd noises and brand new camera angles, enabled because of empty stands, that brought fans closer to the action.
According to Forbes, the virtualization of the stands is achieved through technology from Norwegian firm VIZRT. Seats are overlaid with to-scale images of supporters wearing team colors and when there is a break in play this image can be turned into a canvas displaying a message.
Meanwhile, the sound will be provided by EA Sports, the developer of the phenomenally popular FIFA video game series. EA Sports is already an official partner of LaLiga, with FIFA boasting a fully-branded digital version of the competition, complete with official stadiums, kits, teams and presentation.
US-based streaming service FloSports is trialling a new social streaming feature via its mobile app that will generate fan noise to be used in-stadia based on users’ real-time interactions.
Crowd noise will be used from the game as part of a ‘Sound of the Stands’ platform that will dynamically respond to events on the pitch, such as a goal, foul, or near-miss.
It should be noted that pumping crowd noise into NHL arenas is not a new phenomenon
Mitch Gallo, who is a host on TSN690, says they definitely pump in crowd noise at the Bell Centre. McGuire is asked how many teams does he think pump in crowd noise during a game? He answered “A lot more than you think.”
— NHL Watcher (@NHL_Watcher) June 15, 2020
Behind the scenes, the NBA scanned abroad for ideas on ways to engage its fans, looking as far as Denmark’s Aarhus Gymnastikforening (AGF), where the soccer league invited 10,000 fans to watch via a Zoom video broadcast. Fans signed up for tickets and were paired on Zoom calls that featured other fans in sections they would normally sit with during games. NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum, who oversees the league’s business affairs, hinted at ideas like AGF’s, which is being called the world’s “first virtual grandstand.”
“We’re going to use this as an opportunity to bring our fans closer to the game,” Tatum said. “And so, what you’ll see in the arena are opportunities for fans to interact, to be seen in the arena, and to have hundreds of fans be able to appear on the video boards surrounding the court.”
It will be very interesting to see what is ultimately decided by the NHL and their broadcast partners.
By Jon Sorensen
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