Is HD the killer app the NHL needs to give viewership a boost?

A steady drop in National Hockey League ratings makes a new major network contract with the NHL worth about half of the value of the existing five-year $600 million contract with ABC/ESPN, which expires at the end of this season, according to a report from sports journalist Mac Engel appearing in The Fort Worth Star Telegram.

ESPN recently called attention to the benefits of watching hockey in HD by letterboxing its SD feed and placing a graphic in the shape of a 4:3 box around a portion of the shot to visually illustrate how much more action can be seen thanks to high definition’s 16:9 aspect ratio.

“Although regarded and marketed as one of the best in-game experiences in pro sports, hockey and the NHL may be the worst of all pro sports in the format that pays the most: television,” Engle reported in the article.

According to the NHL, HDTV could be the factor that transforms the hockey viewing experience into something that approximates actually being in the arena.

This year, 25 percent of all televised NHL games will be produced and distributed in HD. Additionally, 10 clubs currently broadcast HD games –up from three a couple of years ago.

ABC/ESPN is making an effort to promote HD hockey coverage as well. During last night’s game between the Dallas Stars and the Colorado Avalanche, ESPN called the attention of viewers to the benefits of watching hockey in HD by letterboxing its SD feed and placing a graphic in the shape of a 4:3 box around a portion of the shot to visually illustrate how much more action can be seen thanks to high-definition’s 16:9 aspect ratio.

Sports Technology Update recently spoke separately with NHL vice president of broadcast and programming Adam Acone and Jack Williams, Comcast SportsNet president and CEO, to find out if HDTV is likely to attract more fans and improve the experience of watching hockey on TV.

While Acone brings the league’s perspective on HDTV to the table, Williams offers a unique perspective since Comcast SportsNet recently invested several million dollars in HD teleproduction and its parent company owns the Philadelphia Flyers.

Sports Technology Update :Can HDTV attract a greater hockey audience?

Adam Acone: There’s no doubt that it can attract more viewers and fans. High-definition will certainly be a benefit to the NHL primarily because of the aspect ratio, the clarity of picture and the Surround Sound audio quality. High-definition will bring the in-arena fan experience into the living room.

STU:What impact will the enhanced performance of HD have on the presentation of hockey on television?

AA: Because of the shape of the ice rink, because of its length and width, the shape of the rink fits the HD aspect ratio, and therefore the fan at home will be able to see more of the ice and more of the players on the ice.

In the 4:3 frame, we as rights holders frame games so many of the players aren’t visible. What HD will do is allow us to frame more of the players on the ice at once.

Right now, our pictures follow the action and frame less of the game (than with HD). That approach requires the panning of cameras at the same speed of the skaters. Therefore the quickness of the game is not recognized in SD.

With HD, the play will develop on the ice all within the frame. A viewer will be able to watch those things that he or she is interested in and will be able to appreciate the speed of the game.

Secondly, the clarity of the HD picture will make the puck and skill level of these guys -in terms of stick handling and skating- more visible and exciting to the fan.

Finally, there’s no greater place to be than a hockey rink during a practice or game. The slapping of the stick, the sounds of puck and skates on the ice, players communicating with each other -that audio is vital to the game. It just enhances the game so much more with the Surround Sound of HD. It will give the fan in the living room a very similar experience to the fan sitting in the arena.

STU:What impact will HDTV have on viewers?

Jack Williams: I think it will definitely add to the enjoyment of viewers, but it is not a cure all. There has to be interest, and if there is interest viewers will enjoy the telecasts more with HDTV.

But it’s not going to make someone become a fan just because it’s in HD.

STU:What impact will the enhanced resolution of HD and its 16:9 aspect ratio have on the presentation of hockey?

JW: If you aren’t familiar with the game of hockey, it can be tough to follow the puck in SD. But with the clarity and sharpness of an HDTV picture, it’s much easier to watch the puck –even though it moves so fast.

Also the 16:9 aspect ratio should make it easier for viewers to watch plays develop. In hockey, a lot of the action does not take place around the puck -for instance, a lot of the checking that goes on. The wider aspect ratio will help in that regard.

STU:How have Comcast SportsNet viewers responded to your HD production of Philadelphia Flyer games?

JW: The response has been outstanding. We have a good strong hockey following, and HDTV in Philadelphia is growing rapidly. We’ll do around 30 Flyer home games in HD this season.

I think sports is especially helpful in promoting HD in the market. We deal primarily in regional sports, the sports people grow up with. Following a local team is about as passionate as anything that goes on and producing those sports in HD on cable has done more for the expansion of HD than anything.

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