Advertising on rink boards has not evolved much since it first began appearing in NHL games in 1980.
But during the World Cup of Hockey this week and next, the National Hockey League is experimenting with a major change that it is hoping may eventually become more widespread.
TV viewers of the games have been seeing a virtual overlay on the boards that allows a single brand at a time to take over all of the boards in the Air Canada Centre.
The digitally enhanced boards are the result of a two-year process involving the NHL, its broadcasters, and London-based Supponor, which provides hardware that uses infrared signals to replace the on-site boards with digital ad images during the broadcasts. It's the first time the NHL has experimented with this kind of technology, which has already been used by La Liga in Spain for ads alongside soccer pitches.
"We saw it as a huge opportunity for us," said Keith Wachtel, the NHL's executive vice-president of global partnerships.
That's because regular rink boards cannot compensate for the fact that TV audiences are spread out. The NHL has different marketing partnerships by region, not all of which are relevant to all TV viewers. Where most Canadian viewers have been seeing a string of ads from brands such as Tim Hortons, Canadian Tire and Bank of Nova Scotia around the rink, viewers on TVA have seen French-language boards; U.S. viewers tuning in through ESPN have seen ads for brands such as Geico and DraftKings; and global feeds have carried advertising targeted to audiences outside North America.
"We have differing telecoms, differing insurance partners, credit-card partners, bank partners," Mr. Wachtel said.
"Our partners have the ability to market where it matters to them."
While some "traditionalists" aren't too happy with the change, according to Mr. Wachtel, the NHL says feedback so far has been mostly positive. While ads still crowd the field of play, the digital versions have a cleaner look. Through focus groups leading up to the tournament, the league determined that it would not allow brands to post ads using their own background colours, for instance, which people found harder on the eyes. The advertising only changes when the camera cuts away from the boards, to minimize distractions. A team of people is charged just with monitoring the ads' appearance and inserting them into the broadcast at the right times.
The switch required selling ads differently for the tournament: On-site boards – which are the NHL's space to sell for league events such as this – have far less visibility in the broadcast. They appear during roughly 15 per cent of the airtime, during close-ups and replays, for example. Each advertiser was sold a certain number of guaranteed total minutes on the boards, broken up into increments from a few seconds to more than a minute, depending on the course of play. Advertisers pay a premium to appear on the digital TV boards.
However, the NHL had to require that in order to secure that space, advertisers had to buy it as part of a larger media package – so as not to infringe on the deals it has with its broadcast partners, such as Rogers and ESPN.
"We wanted to make sure people didn't see this as an opportunity to get great exposure without having to buy media," Mr. Wachtel said.
It's the first major change to the rink boards in 36 years, he said. About a decade ago, the league instituted new standards of white backgrounds on ads, to control for a perception of a cluttered "wild west" on the boards. More recently, virtual ads began appearing to TV viewers on the glass above each goal.
The technology has obvious upsides: Rather than being one in a crowd of boards, a single brand can command 100 per cent of rink-side visibility during the time its boards appear on TV. And they can present more dynamic messaging: Geico can present not just its logo, but also its 15-per-cent savings message. If Team Canada makes the finals, Canadian advertisers may want to include tributes in the ads; that would be unrealistic with static boards.
The promise is even greater for the NHL's regular season: Clubs could sell in-rink ads to local or regional marketers, while more rink-side space could be freed up for larger regional or national players on the TV broadcasts.
For now, the technology is too cumbersome to allow for that. Supponor's system required the NHL to attach hardware to the TV cameras that would pick up an infrared signal from an invisible film placed over the boards. The film had to be tested to ensure it could withstand checks, and that the ad images were clean and sharp and didn't blend with the image of the game play. To install the hardware in 31 NHL arenas would be cost prohibitive. However, the NHL is hoping a software solution may soon be developed to allow ad insertions to be done by a central team.
"We are working with Supponor and numerous other tech companies to find a solution that would work for more games than you see now," Mr. Wachtel said.