NHL looks to Web and mobile to popularize game

Sports fans demand a lot more than game tickets and newspaper box scores these days – they want constantly updated game information and access to high-quality video no matter where they are. That’s why the National Hockey League’s technology team is on a quest to upgrade its Web and mobile video capabilities.


“We know that we have a very tech-savvy group of fans, and we want to leverage technology to enhance the game,” says Peter DelGiacco, the CTO of the National Hockey League.


The NHL’s GameCenter Live lets fans watch live games, up to four at once, chat with fellow fans and view up-to-date statistics all on the same screen. But the little black puck on white ice is “a nightmare to encode” and before this season the service’s video quality wasn’t the greatest, DelGiacco said this week at the Gartner Data Center Conference.


“In prior years we weren’t able to deliver the same quality of video,” DelGiacco said. For this season the NHL enhanced the service with high-definition video, DVR functionality, and adaptive streaming, which adjusts video quality to each user’s bandwidth. As part of the same project, the NHL and its franchises redesigned all 30 team Web sites.


“When you start watching a game, the quality starts at 400 [kilobits per second] for a few seconds, then it jumps to 800, then 1600, and it keeps going up until you say ‘now that’s good,'” DelGiacco said.


DelGiacco described his Web site project in a session hosted by Compuware, which provides application performance optimization tools for the NHL, and described some of his broader technology goals in an interview with Network World.

Now that the NHL has upgraded its Web browser capabilities, DelGiacco is looking toward the mobile market. “I think mobile is a big opportunity,” he said.


Already, the NHL has a deal with Bell to deliver live games on mobile phones to Canadian customers, although the service involves only U.S.-based teams because of rights issues.


In the United States, the NHL has a deal with Verizon but live video isn’t in the cards yet for American customers.


“We need to make sure the phones can handle that type of streaming,” DelGiacco said. “Major League Baseball has done it with their product, using HTTP with the iPhone. The iPhone has that capability. Verizon has the Droids, which do not really support HTTP yet. That’s a timing issue when that comes into play, if those are the phones we choose to do that on.”


Most fans would rather watch a game in person or on their high-definition TVs than on a tiny mobile phone screen, of course. But the NHL is getting demand for video highlights on phones, and is already delivering video highlights and text message score alerts through a deal with Verizon, DelGiacco said.


“I think mobile is something we really want to keep an eye on,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen this year but ultimately, when 4G comes around that’s going to change things. I think video for us on the Web this year was a big change. It really made it so you could watch really good quality video of a hockey game on the Web. I don’t know when that’s going to happen for the phones but it’s going to happen soon, and when it does we want to make sure we’re there.”


Although ice hockey has a dedicated legion of fans, particularly in Canada and the colder regions of the United States, its popularity lags behind sports such as football, basketball and baseball. The NHL’s attempts to use technology to attract a wider population of fans have sometimes backfired, notably in the mid-1990s when the Fox network superimposed a glowing halo onto the puck in order to let casual fans follow the puck more closely.


“I don’t think you’re going to see the glowing puck” again, DelGiacco said. But high-definition TV is solving the problems in translating hockey to TV that led to the glowing puck in the first place.


“HD definitely made a difference for us,” DelGiacco said. “Everyone says ‘oh I can see the puck and it’s clear.’ But there’s a bigger difference. When you look at standard definition you see like four players on the ice. You see the guy pass it and the camera would pan over and you see that over there. When you look at in HD you see about nine players on the ice and when you see him pass it you know who he’s passing it to because the player receiving the pass is on the screen.”


Just as baseball has a computerized system for tracking pitches in the strike zone for TV broadcasts, DelGiacco said the NHL is considering similar technology to track puck movements.


“I think we might be able to track the puck better, give you the speed of the puck on shots,” he said. “That’s a real possibility. The way that happens though is still up in the air. There are lots of different technologies, certain camera angles where you can figure out where people are, where the puck is, how it travels and all that good stuff.”


Ultimately, it all comes down to what the fans respond to. “You can think something’s a great idea but if they don’t use it you have to move on,” he said. “So you have to stay in touch with them and you have to figure out what it is that works for them.”


DelGiacco is based in New York City, has about 40 employees reporting to him, and oversees two data centers in New York and Pennsylvania with 60 or so racks of equipment.


In addition to running the league Web site, DelGiacco’s team provides a network that connects the 30 arenas, scoring systems in the arenas, centralized scouting tools, and a content management system and infrastructure for the individual Web sites operated by NHL teams.


DelGiacco is originally from New York but wouldn’t admit to being a Rangers fan. “I like all the teams,” he said.


Although he is an important figure in running the league’s day-to-day operations, and perhaps in helping to popularize the sport through technology, DelGiacco realizes he’s not exactly a celebrity figure or a regular in the locker room.


When asked if Sidney Crosby, the 22-year-old superstar for the Pittsburgh Penguins, would recognize him, DelGiacco just laughed and said “no, no, no. Sidney Crosby wouldn’t recognize me.”