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Creating the digital home of hockey - SportsPro Live panel

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by Alistair Taylor

Yesterday at SportsPro Live, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussing the creation of the digital home of hockey with Thierry Weil, International Hockey Federation (FIH)’s CEO and Jean-Luc Jezouin, SVP, Business Development at Nagra.

In the session aptly titled Inside the Partnership: Creating the digital home of hockey, we touched on the ten-year deal between Nagra and the FIH, intended to expand the rights holders’ over-the-top (OTT) offering. Below is a write up of the discussion.

Alistair: Let’s dive straight in. Thierry, creating the digital home of hockey, please tell us what this will look like and the reasons behind it?

Thierry: As mentioned when we announced our partnership with Nagra in May, we are a very entertaining sport, our athletes are great, very approachable and very committed, we have good structures (FIH, CFs, NAs, clubs), based essentially on fantastic volunteers, but I don’t think we have reached our maximum potential, both in terms of participation (number of players) and popularity.

Therefore, our daily ambition is to grow hockey. To achieve that, we need, amongst others, a state-of-the-art digital offer. One of the first things I realised when I joined FIH in 2018 is that our digital offer should improve significantly. We’re doing good on social media, but our website however provides only the basics, we have no app and we have no CRM, which is a hindrance for fan engagement.

So, we’ve looked for a partner who could push strongly our digital transformation and reach new levels and in May we were happy to announce that we had found this partner with Nagra coming on board.

FIH and Nagra have taken the first steps in the creation of the digital home of hockey for the global [field] hockey community by launching the Watch.Hockey app. Our fans and community are at the centre of everything that we do, and now we can bring the sport that unites all of us to them in an innovative way to enable a new level of engagement. In fact, this is not an FIH app, it is the app of the global hockey community, who will largely contribute to the content of this app.

Alistair: Jean-Luc, how does Nagra’s involvement enable the FIH to improve and expand its direct-to-consumer (D2C) operations?

Jean-Luc: Firstly, it is about content management and distribution. Nagra has been providing broadcast and streaming technology and services to operators who distribute premium content, sports and entertainment alike, to consumers at the highest quality and reliability for over 30 years.

Secondly, it is about content creation, where technology has also evolved to bring down production costs, be it production by professionals, volunteers or the crowd itself. So, we are now at a junction where so much more content volume and content formats can be brought economically to the fans.

At Nagra we have put together our skills in content management, content security, carrier-grade reliability, in user experience – not only for mobile and web but also, let’s not forget them because they are still the best place to watch long-form sports, for big TV screens –. Add to this our ability to operate in 150 countries around the world on a 24/7 basis, then we can deliver awesome digital experience to sports fans.

Because our systems are designed and proven for scale, the choice of content available to the fans can go up exponentially.

We call this “sports-as-a-service” and it enables to launch quickly, in a few weeks, the “Home of a Sport” where fans can find all the content related to a given sport, league or federation, be it live, replay, highlights, news, interviews, sports data and statistics, etc., as you have just seen in the video clip.

With FIH, we are today launching such a digital transformation of hockey.

Alistair: Thierry, I understand that the platform offers live matches to subscribers in territories where the FIH does not have a broadcast rights partner. Would you say the long-term plan is to leverage exclusivity, by showing more if not all live matches on the streaming service or will you continue to look to secure distribution deals with traditional broadcasters too, in order to maximise reach?

Thierry: I think it’s really important to find the right mix between an own streaming service (OTT) and the “traditional” way of showing matches through TV broadcasters. Of course, an OTT enables [us] to reach a larger community, which is key, and even more so for hockey, which, as mentioned previously, does not yet enjoy the exposure that it deserves. However, at the same time, broadcast partners also play an important role in promoting the sport, not only through the broadcast of the matches but also in terms of financial resources.

Alistair: Thierry, you intend to keep the service free until you have built an attractive offering for consumers. Has the decision to employ an advertising-based revenue model come from witnessing subscription-based services struggling to generate sufficient subscriber bases?

Thierry: Watch.Hockey is the Home of Hockey. Its ambition is to reach anyone passionate about hockey, and to connect the Federation to all hockey participants and fans. We are going in for mass reach. We do not want that a paywall might limit access to people with an interest but shy to pay money out. We estimate that not having a paywall might generate one or two orders of magnitude more usage of the app.

We also have to prove ourselves to the fans: that the app and its content are attractive and worth going to every day. Frankly, there is a lot we need to learn, we are walking a little into unchartered territory, because the monetisation aspects of sports have been monopolised by less than 10 sports and 100 leagues at a worldwide level.

Besides, engaging directly with players and fans opens the door to engage directly with the end consumers for all sorts of transactions, both online and at the stadium, and for both virtual and physical products that exist around hockey. We are just starting that journey.

Alistair: COVID exposed live entertainment as a vulnerable asset. How has the postponement of live sports affected planning? We’ve seen other sports resorting to docuseries, leveraging their archived footage. How does the FIH intend to utilise this content to drive engagement?

Thierry: Of course, as a sports federation organising many competitions and having launched last year the FIH Hockey Pro League – with almost 150 matches for each edition – our content is much event-driven. Therefore, the pandemic has been a challenge in this regard too.

However, we’ve been able to maintain a strong engagement with our community during this time by publishing a number of different stories, maybe more “inspirational”, by doing more athlete interviews – some of them live on our social media handles -, by using our archives, etc. Watch.Hockey will indeed be a really good platform to enjoy past matches. We know that there is a strong appetite from fans and players for that type of content!

Alistair: It must feel like an eternity since competitive hockey was last played and a relief to see the Pro League resuming next week. Without fans in attendance, how does hockey intend to improve the spectacle?

Thierry: The hockey Pro League is resuming on September 22nd, this is why we timed the launch of the Watch.Hockey app today. Matches will be produced with very high quality, typically 10-12 cameras and slow-motion, and with very enthusiastic live commentaries. This will cater for a good watching experience on the app.

Also remember that Pro League is an international competition spanning from New Zealand to the West Coast of the US, so we can’t expect all fans to be awake when a match takes place. The time shift functionalities of the app will help a lot in that regard. For example, any live event shown on the app is automatically turned into replay within a few minutes of the event’s end.

Jean-Luc: But Watch.Hockey is much more than live matches. It also offers fans with news, videos, all sorts of data and statistics, alerts, notifications, etc. All this is being used to deliver content on a daily basis to create excitement leading to the matches and then keep engaging the fans by publishing the best actions or interviews in the days following the matches.

In addition, we are preparing Watch.Hockey with functionalities to share content and instant moments to fuel social engagement.

Alistair: Jean-Luc, is this where the Sporfie solution comes into play? Encouraging users to capture highlights and video content from the live action to share on social platforms?

Jean-Luc: Sporfie is indeed a cloud-based solution enabling fans but also marketing managers to instantly capture moments during live games and share them on social platforms and any other communication media. It was initially designed for live attendance and we are now adopting it for remote usage. This requires us to polish some technical innovation to drastically reduce latency for example. It will be ready soon.

We also have personalised recommendations in the app. Sports apps are discovering personal recommendations, but through our pay-TV heritage we’ve been using it for over 10 years: some pay-TV systems have five to 6,000 channels and up to 50,000 pieces of [video on demand], so a smart recommendation system is a must. The system learns the content consumption pattern of each fan to propose her or him the most relevant content, but it also proposes content that a fan is not watching but that similar fans are watching, in order to help discover new content too.

We are iterating features very quickly, on a bi-weekly basis.

Alistair: Content production came to a standstill during the pandemic and ensuing lockdown. Jean-Luc how does Nagra plan to create content remotely and incorporate content from the global hockey community?

Jean-Luc: Our mantra is that Watch.Hockey is the Home of Hockey: it is the one-place for all that is hockey. So it is essential to federate content from the entire hockey community. That is content from international competitions sanctioned by FIH, but also content from regional and national competitions sanctioned by the respective associations.

This is happening, you can already see a large variety of content inside the app at launch. We are creating specific sections in the app to give high visibility to associations and players. As many sports, hockey is also fuelled by the passion of players and volunteers and many are creating excellent content too. Our platform allows many parties to simultaneously input and manage content to fulfil the Home of Hockey.

Alistair: The NFL first warned streaming services about curing latency, and we’ve seen instances with Eleven Sports, Amazon, Optus and Spark Sports during high-profile events struggling to deal with large concurrent viewership. How does Nagra plan to avoid this pitfall and deliver a seamless viewing experience?

Jean-Luc: The good news is that the OTT platform running the plumbing of our “Sports-as-a-Service” offering has been tuned in the last 15 years with the most demanding Premium TV operators, with names like Altice, Telefonica, Vodafone, Foxtel, Starhub, etc. It currently supports over 35 million users. It truly is carrier-grade. We routinely stream the top matches from La Liga for example with over millions of simultaneous users connecting within a couple of minutes.

We also have technology to reduce latency sub 6-7 seconds where it matters, on par with the best broadcast.

Alistair: Being a stats guy, I love the concept of including a global player database within the platform, what other exciting innovations can we expect from the partnership? Thierry and Jean-Luc, I’d like to ask you both this.

Jean-Luc: I do not think that today any International Federation has a database of all their participants worldwide. And not many at the national level. Imagine how much a Federation could do with that! How it would get close to the people who care for the sport, train hard every day, perform at elite level and are enthusiast at grass-root level! Because participants are the core fans of a sport like hockey, a global database will build up rapidly. And being a cloud service, Watch.Hockey can give access to the relevant portions of that database to federation managers or club managers in due respect of all privacy regulations of course. I am sure that a lot of innovation will arise from this in the coming years.

Thierry: Knowing the hockey community better is one of the major objectives of FIH as we speak. Watch.Hockey shall help us achieve that. And by doing so, we’ll be able to serve our community even better, by providing them with the content they want. This means a better and closer engagement with the members of the hockey community worldwide.

Alistair: Coincidentally I’ve played field hockey for over twenty years, and in the UK it doesn’t get a lot of attention. Following the women’s gold at Rio, hysteria around the game grew, but is the hope that this platform and long-term partnership can help grow the fandom and participation at a grassroots level?

Thierry: Growing the fandom and participation are our two biggest objectives. As explained earlier, I’m convinced that one of the criteria to achieve this is our digital offer. Watch.Hockey will definitely help us to do that, especially thanks to the accessibility of its content: all in one place and on mobile! This should result in more visibility for hockey, and therefore more promotion, more interest for potential commercial partners, etc.  

End of Discussion.

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