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NHL, MLB announce 6-year deal to give hockey digital assist

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hypes the endless possibilities of Tuesday's announcement.John Locher/AP

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hypes the endless possibilities of Tuesday’s announcement.

Take me out to the ballgame – and the hockey rink. On Tuesday, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball announced a six-year agreement to create a unique and groundbreaking partnership.

Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) – baseball’s interactive media arm but also a streaming-video provider for myriad partners such as ESPN, HBO, WWE and Southwest Airlines – will receive exclusive rights to the NHL’s digital content and, through collaboration, will apply its expertise to the operations of NHL.com, NHL Network and hockey’s live-streaming of games to improve offerings across all platforms.

The NHL and its clubs will retain editorial control across all platforms, but MLBAM’s presence will help the league design and develop new digital products and enhance existing offerings.

“We’re not turning baseball into hockey, and baseball isn’t turning itself into hockey,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a conference call. “By combining our resources we believe the possibilities are endless … I don’t even think we can tell you today where this is going to take us, but it’s going to broader and bigger.”

NHL Network, previously based in Toronto, now will operate out of the Emmy-Award-winning MLB Network’s headquarters in Secaucus, N.J. The NHL wants “an emphasis on deeper access into the game and telling the stories of NHL players,” and MLBAM’s reach will be widespread.

The deal awards MLBAM rights to distribute live out-of-market games, including through the NHL GameCenter LIVE and NHL Center Ice subscription services in the United States and certain international markets. MLBAM will operate NHL.com, team websites, NHL apps and may even develop apps for NHL clubs.

The improvement of NHL Network, though, is clearly important to hockey’s higher-ups. The league’s website is informative, interactive and packed with information and highlights, but its television network is not as well respected or established.

NHL COO John Collins said in a conference call that he sees “three cornerstone shows:” NHL Live, On the Fly and NHL Tonight. But “beyond that, we’re looking to MLB on how to improve the network. It’s something we have a lot of pride in but something we also recognize there are significant opportunities to improve. This allows us to focus on content.”

The NHL also has been investigating and testing new on-ice and in-rink technologies and can use MLBAM’s expertise in bringing its ideas to life, hopefully at reasonable costs.

Bettman acknowledged there was a rights fee and an equity plan involved in the deal. He said reports of the deal’s value at $ 200 million per year were “too high,” but whatever the exact figure, the money is a welcome infusion to the Hockey Related Revenue (HRR) pool, the overall pot shared by the league and players’ union.

MLBAM expects to fully launch its NHL presence in Jan. 2016. Prior digital partner NeuLion will assist the League and MLBAM through the transition period.

“As the market leader, MLBAM is uniquely qualified to assist us in giving hockey fans a richer, more immersive experience with the game,” Bettman said. “MLBAM is also the right partner because they have the expertise to help us deliver new and exciting products to our fans, who crave compelling digital content. We couldn’t have North America better covered than with the power of NBC, Rogers, TVA and MLBAM – an incredible convergence of technical, creative and production talent that is great news for our fans.”

“It is an honor for Major League Baseball to stand alongside the National Hockey League on this joint initiative,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. “All of us in sports share a desire to distribute our games and tell our stories as widely and broadly as possible. Because of our own experiences in delivering baseball to its loyal fans, MLB Advanced Media is uniquely suited to excel in a partnership of this magnitude.”

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