MLBAM-NHL Deal Means Big Buildout for NHLN at MLBN HQ

Somewhat buried in all the excitement surrounding Tuesday’s announcement of a six-year partnership agreement in which MLB Advanced Media will take over the NHL’s digital and streaming operations was the fact that NHL Network will relocate its operations from Toronto to MLB Network headquarters in Secaucus, NJ. Although the details of NHL Network’s transition remain in flux, one thing was made clear by both leagues: NHL Network will relaunch with a new dedicated studio and control room in Secaucus in time for the start of the 2015-16 season.

“The first change you are going to see on Opening Day is, you are going to be in a new studio. Anyone that has watched MLB Network has seen the commitment to the studio quality that we have, and we are going to bring that to hockey,” says MLB Network President Rob McGlarry, who will now oversee NHL Network as well. “We are going to take a fresh look at everything, but it is too early to announce any changes beyond that. You will probably see more changes as the season evolves than you will on Opening Day.”

Secaucus Ready To Expand for NHLN
McGlarry also acknowledges that the additional postproduction facilities and storage infrastructure for NHL Network will be built in the coming months.

Most of these new facilities are likely to be located in a 40,000-sq.-ft. warehouse recently acquired by MLBN next door to its original facility, which currently houses the newly erected Studio 21.

“When we launched on Opening Day with Studio 21, that was the only thing in the new building,” he points out. “So we had a lot of open space, and, as this deal developed, we knew we could potentially use that for [NHL Network].”

In terms of footprint, McGlarry says the new studio will have multiple desks, and he expects the new studio to be roughly the size of NHLN’s current one in Toronto, but with a sleek, new look and design.

In addition to a dedicated studio in Secaucus, NHLN will also leverage MLBN’s robust studio facilities, especially Studio 21. Currently home to three daily studio shows (MLB Central at 10 a.m. ET, MLB Now at 4 p.m., and the Quick Pitch nightly recap show), the set features a host of LED displays and augmented-reality graphics that make it extremely flexible for producing multiple shows from the same location.

“NHL Network will have its own dedicated studio, but our facilities are also going to give us the flexibility to do a lot of different things,” says McGlarry. “The seasons actually line up really well, especially in terms of October. We will have a lot of lead time going into April, when there will be significant overlap. It’s an aggressive timetable, but we are pretty confident.”

In addition to the Secaucus facility, NHL Network’s existing midtown Manhattan NHL Live studio at the NHL Powered by Reebok Store will also continue to be in the mix.

A Network Reborn
The U.S.’s NHL Network was launched in 2007 and relied heavily on the production and programming of Canada’s NHL Network, which launched in 2001 as a joint venture of the league, CTV Specialty Television (owned by Bell Media and ESPN), and Insight Sports. Though profitable, the U.S. network struggled to secure widespread distribution and to match the production quality of other league-owned networks.

“The [NHL Network] is something that we have had a lot of pride in,” says NHL COO John Collins, “but it’s also something that we recognize there are significant opportunities to improve.”

Signs of the end of the NHL Network began to surface in November 2013, when the NHL and Rogers Communications signed a 12-year, $5.2 billion deal covering Canadian national-broadcast rights. After Rogers took over the NHL rights in Canada last season, the days of NHL Network Canada — and, therefore, NHL Network U.S. — appeared to be numbered. Then, in June, reports began to surface that NHL Network Canada will cease operations on Sept. 1. At Tuesday’s news conference, Commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledged that, after the Rogers rights deal was signed, it “was a necessity that there would have to be a fundamental change in the NHL Network in Canada.”

Says Collins, “The decision when we [made] the Rogers agreement was that, with the sheer amount of programming and the number of games Rogers would be making available and the number of features they would be doing, it really didn’t require an NHL Network to serve that Canadian hockey fan. So there was a plan to roll the NHL network back in Canada and relocate that operation out of TSN and bring it back to the States.”

Despite the new locale and studio, the programming slate for NHL Network is likely to look very familiar. Collins confirms that the network’s schedule will still be built around its cornerstone studio shows: NHL Live pregame show, On the Fly whip-around show, and NHL Tonight postgame show.

“Beyond that, we are very open and looking forward to Rob and his team’s ideas about how to improve the network,” he adds. “One of the great things about the deal is that this allows us to really focus on content. So [MLBN] will figure out ways to use the authenticity and access we can provide into the locker rooms and onto the ice and benches to give fans a whole new view of the sport they love. That will be something we will be focusing on together.”

Staffing Remains Unclear
In terms of personnel and potential job losses at NHL Network’s Toronto and U.S. operations, Bob Bowman, CEO, MLBAM/president, business and media, MLB, declines to go into specifics but acknowledges that MLB will “undoubtedly be hiring additional staff” in Secaucus but also hopes to transition as many NHL Network staffers from Toronto as possible.

Notes Collins, “We haven’t had time to sort through that. We will work closely with Bob and his team to see how we can transition those people.”

Existing MLB Network staffers will play a key role in the relaunched NHL Network operations, McGlarry says. “There are a lot of people in our building who have a lot of experience in and passion for hockey who are going to do hockey and baseball.”