NHL and SAP Disrupt Century-Old Traditions, Boost Revenue and Fan Base

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In the traditional world of the National Hockey League, where change has often been about as welcome as a slap shot to the collarbone, data-driven mobile innovations have begun winning the confidence of players, coaches and fans.

In a conversation at SAP’s Sapphire event last week, the NHL’s senior VP of business development and innovation, Dave Lehanksi, shared the backstory of how some coaches initially reacted to having data-dishing iPads on the bench—on the bench!—during gametime.

SAP and NHL Innovation: Coaching Insights App

“When we first built the SAP/NHL Coaching Insights app, we went to the coaches prior to the 2017 playoffs and said we’re gonna put iPads on all of the benches. Which is a crazy time of year to suggest doing anything differently—it’s right before the playoffs!,” Lehanski said in an interview.

Dave Lehanski speaks during a panel at SAP SAPPHIRE 2019

“So almost every coach said, ‘Wait a second—I’ve just been doing something the same way for 82 games, and now you wanna tell me that I gotta change that?!?’

“Even if it’s just a case of someone being superstitious—and maybe some of them were—they said, ‘I’m not changing my bench setup! This has worked—we’re in the playoffs! Get outta here with that!’,” the rapid-fire-speaking Lehanski said with a laugh.

The league told the coaches that “you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to—it’s up to you,” he said. “And lo and behold, because the product is great, they started to see value in it, right?”

Most coaches and players initially used the app—optimized for the iPad Pro—to check out real-time video highlights. Once the coaches came to see that the devices weren’t a distraction and were indeed offering value to the players and assistant coaches, the teams quickly moved from watching video clips to wanting to see the data represented within the video segments.

“I think we’re now the only professional sports league—certainly in North America—delivering real-time stats and data to the coaches during gametime,” said Lehanski, a former goalie.

SAP and NHL Innovation: Growing the Game

The NHL is building its move into a digital future around three core initiatives. I’ll let Lehanski explain in his own words.

“‘Grow the game’ is the term we all use” to describe how the NHL wants to move into its second century, Lehanksi said.

“First is increasing and expanding the fan base—bringing on new fans. How do we get casual sports fans to all of a sudden develop an affinity for the NHL? And, how do we get avid fans to engage even more? So when you think about data, how do we create new data to create new stories, new content that they’ll want to gravitate to that they weren’t consuming before.

“Second is improving the game on the ice through technology. The coaching app is a perfect example, right? How do we develop a coaching application that will help coaches to get more insight than they’ve ever had before? And to process that insight faster than they’ve ever been able to before to make better decisions? How do we help coaches, players and officials to do the best that they can do?

“And third, how do we then do either or both of those first two to generate incremental revenue?”

SAP and NHL Innovation: Puck and Player Tracking

Earlier this year, as a next step into the digital-and-data realm, the NHL announced that it’s developing a NHL Puck and Player Tracking system. The expectation is that this system will generate massive amounts of data—and that data will be the foundation for addressing each of the three points Lehanski outlined.  

“Think about Puck and Player tracking and all this new data that we’re going to get. We’ll take all that data and give it to coaches so they can make better decisions. And we’ll give it to broadcasters so they can create new graphics and visualizations in the broadcast that you’ve never seen before and now you can see how fast the puck is moving,” Lehanski said.

“We’ll take the data and maybe we’ll give it to some gaming partners. And maybe they can create new real-time in-play sports-betting applications. Because all that data’s gonna be rippin’ through the HANA Cloud at sub-second latency and you’ll be able to calculate real-time in-game probabilities and odds so you can bet.

“We’re gonna use that one initiative to grow our fan base, to generate incremental revenue, to improve the game on the ice. And that’s generally how we look at everything.”

SAP and NHL Innovation: Knocking Down Silos

Asked how his team—business development and innovation—engages with the NHL’s chief technology officer and the IT part of the league, Lehanski outlined a cross-functional dynamic that’s become indispensable for every business looking to capitalize on the digital era.

“I’m very fortunate to have a phenomenal relationship with our chief technology officer—we both have a clear understanding of each other’s needs,” Lehanski said. “Traditionally, I think the league looked at technology as something that helps us do what we’re currently doing better—‘How do we do what we’re doing better, better, better?’

Apple CEO Tim Cook and SAP CEO Bill McDermott discuss the NHL at SAP SAPPHIRE 2019

“But more recently, we’ve begun to look at how we could use technology to do things completely differently—in ways that just don’t exist today! I think we both understand that’s a combination of a business function and a true technical expertise.”

And finally, having complete confidence in its technology providers has been essential in driving changes that were both disruptive but also necessary.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled with where we are today. It’s exceeded our expectations,” Lehanski said.

“While we’re working with SAP on several initiatives, with the SAP/NHL Coaching Insights app, the experience we’ve had, the development and how quickly and effectively it happened, the collaboration with Apple to engage with our clubs in 1:1 sessions and design-thinking sessions, and the support on the rollout and overall buy-in from everyone—we just couldn’t ask to be in a better position.

“And because of all that, we are where we are today—we have coaches who, at the app’s inception, were probably shaking their heads and saying ‘No way!’

“But today, they’re holding that iPad in their hands constantly throughout the entire game.”


Disclosure: at the time of this writing, SAP was a client of Evans Strategic Communications LLC.


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