Commentary

Goal! Yahoo Will Stream NHL Games

Yahoo today announced a deal with the National Hockey League to live stream up to four games a week for the remainder of the season and continuing though 2017-18. Those games will be available without any cable subscription authentication. Stanley Cup playoff games aren’t part of the deal.

It would seem to be a good scalable project for both parties. Hockey has gotten far more popular in the last decade but it is not a sport that attracts mass audiences everywhere in the U.S. So it's kind of right-sized for streaming and Yahoo. The package, which starts tomorrow also includes a condensed game, best of the week and best of the day video features. The Yahoo deal is in addition to NBC Sports’ telecasts and streaming of Wednesday and Sunday night games.

“We know you love sports and this alliance brings us one step closer to providing you a live professional sporting event every day, on Yahoo, completely frictionless and for free – no cable subscription or authentication required,” wrote Phil Lynch, vice president of media partnerships at Yahoo.  It already has an MLB game of the day and deals with the PGA Tour and NBC Sports for live content.

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Lynch promised “new advertising opportunities that will run within commercial breaks” during live streams of both the NHL and MLB streams this season and dangled the prospect of gaining access to Yahoo’s audience data to target fans after the fact. That latter possibility is, for all streaming sports plotlines, the big selling proposition.

A few themes keep turning up--live and sports in this case, and mobile, which is the way online viewing is going. It’s logical to assume more than half of those NHL streamed games will be watched on smartphones.

Is that a problem?

Maybe.Part of the reason hockey is not much of a TV sport is that it’s a hard game to follow:  A small puck goes flying in any direction, at a blazing rate of speed; perhaps only a golf ball is harder to follow.   

In 1996, when Fox had TV rights to the NHL, it introduced technology that gave the puck a glow that produced a tail when it was propelled. A neat thing, but back then, the sports viewing world collectively lost its lunch. People hated it, and its reputation remains. An ESPN.com survey in 2002 concluded that the glowing puck was the “sixth-worst innovation in sports history.” It really wasn’t. It was just.  . . different.

So, wait. If much of the streaming viewing will be taking place on itty-bitty smartphone screen, isn’t this the time to bring the glowing puck back for a test spin? We’re gobsmacked by game-tinkering technology now; Yahoo and the NHL should hop on it.

But I digress.

The 300-lb linebacker in the live sports streaming arena is the NFL. Yahoo last season paid $20 million last season to get rights to the first exclusively-streamed regular season pro game. Now the NFL is trying to sell a fat package of non-exclusive Thursday night games for the coming season,, and while some think Yahoo might have been interested, other names--Facebook, Verizon, Amazon and lately, CBS--seem to be hotter prospects. The NFL reportedly wants to empty the pockets of one of those companies in time for its owners meeting in about a week and a half.

Also in sports news today ( I’ve spent a career avoiding that phrase, until this moment), the youth-oriented social destination Whistle Sports announced today it closed on a $20 million round of new funding from Tegna, Inc. (the new can-we-agree-it’s-weird? name for Gannett’s non-newspaper holdings), NBC Sports Ventures, Sky and and Emil Capital.

I shorthand this a little but Whistle Sports is built on the idea that younger viewers like the skill and competition of the sporting life, just not the conventions of the sports, or the media way of covering it. That struck a nerve. Just since 2014, it’s attracted an aggregate reach of 170 million viewers across social media platforms, growing, it says, by two million week. Sky and Liberty Global were already investors. Whistle Sport was part of the original launch of Verizon’s Go90, too.

pj@mediapost.com
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