Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Can the Leafs even spin their own web?

Sean from Down Goes Brown posted an interesting and insightful comment on the state of the Leafs Web-site in response to my long-winded post suggesting the Leafs re-vamp their online approach to information distribution and sharing.

I completely agree with DGB, but his comment begs a larger question: how much control do NHL teams have over the development and utilization of their own web-sites?

I haven't been following this anywhere near close enough, but the answer to that question seems to be none.

Think about that for a moment.

An original six franchise in one of the largest media markets in the world and their web-site is completely controlled by the NHL League offices (the same bunch who brought you a TV deal with Versus and Boots Del Biaggio a must read from Mirtle).

This lack of control describes both the Rangers and Leafs to a "T" and it's what's at the heart of the ongoing lawsuit between the Rangers and the NHL.

Digital Rights, Internet Portals and a Lack of Local Control

In 2006, NHL owners were asked to vote on transferring digital rights to the NHL including the creation of a league-wide Web portal that would use uniform team sites.

According to the Sports Business Journal, the transfer proposed by the NHL was accepted "by a 25-3 vote, with the Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Minnesota Wild dissenting. Detroit abstained, and Edmonton was absent from the session."

That vote certainly explains why mapleleafs.com looks like a bad myspace page and has all of the interoperability of a first generation bbs.

Here's the money quote from MSG Chief Executive James Dolan (from a fax sent to the 29 other clubs):

"We have repeatedly expressed our belief that individual clubs could achieve the same or better results by entering the new media business on their own terms, rather than being mandated to submit to a league-wide initiative."

According to Newsday, Dolan called the NHL plan "flawed" and said the league "continues to squander opportunities to improve our business and solidify and grow our fan base." (No word if Dolan did a, "*cough* Balsillie *cough*" at the end of his statement.)

Clearly, the ramifications of this suit, especially for wealthier large-market teams like the Leafs, are huge.

Seeing as the Leafs did vote against the League web-portal/digital rights issue in June 2006, does anyone know if the Leafs filed a brief of any sort in the case? (CanLii is a great source for legal decisions, is there a similar database for legal briefs and, if so, is any one willing or able to do some digging?)

6 comments:

  1. Warning: I do this stuff for a living so I tend to find it more interesting than normal people. What follows may bore 90% of you.

    The issue you outline is a variation on a problem that faces just about every large global web site.

    Typically, when you're running a large multi-site property you want to enforce fairly strict standards of consistency across your various sites. This approach has benefits in terms of user experience (since a user doesn't have to relearn your site structure and navigation every time they click over to a new section of the site), and also can make your web content easier to manage by allowing much of it to pass through a central team.

    On the other hand, strict consistency can prevent you from fully optimizing your sites to specific markets and locales. And a central web team may not be as knowledgable about specific regional concerns as a group of smaller local teams would be. But if you create those smaller teams and let everybody do their own thing, you wind up with a collection of very different sites that may be optimized locally, but don't work well together as a whole.

    Basically, the NHL is saying that the benefits of having a consistent look-and-feel outweigh the local concerns. The Leafs, Rangers and others seem to disagree. There's no clear cut right answer here, there are pro's and con's on each side.

    I will say that I know for a fact that the Leafs have had their own web team as recently as a few years ago, and I assume they still do. The Senators also have their own web group. I'd be willing to bet that all NHL teams do. These groups typically report into either the marketing or communications group, and they manage the content of the sites while working within the templates and guidelines set down by the central office.

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  2. DGB - Thanks very much for the insight. It makes me wonder how restrictive/limiting the NHL's internet policies reallly are?

    The Rangers-NHL lawsuit makes it seem like it's more about ad revenues and on-line corporate partnerships than it is about content and usage...either way, I think there's a huge opportunity with the Leafs web-site and it's being squandered.

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  3. That's my guess too. In theory, there's no reason why the various NHL teams need to be treated as a group at all (in fact I'd love to see their metrics, I bet there's not a lot of visitors who hit more than one site regularly). If the Rangers want to form a partnership here or put an ad there, I can see why they'd get annoyed when head office says no.

    My experience has been that if you're going to have everything centralized, that central team better be good. The fact that so many NHL sites seem to lag behind and look like sites from 2001 (not just look-and-feel, but overall design too) makes me wonder if the teams are being well served here.

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  4. DGB's first comment reminds me of what I should have mentioned before: SBN is an example of a collection of sites that are optimized locally.

    The design has always been consistent across sites (with the ability to customize to a certain extent) with a central site (www.sbnation.com) that serves as an index page and agreggator.

    Content is up to each site operator but there are standards that are expected to be met in terms of posting during the season.

    It seems to be working really well and if the NHL followed a similar approach (with a better design team because I've seen more tastefully done MySpace pages) I think it would benefit the league as a whole more than the current format which, quite frankly, blows.

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  5. One additional benefit to using a standardized template is the opportunity for optimization.

    A good web site is constantly tweaking, testing, measuring and optimizing. If the NHL lets all 30 teams do their own things, then that means 30 different sites to test. If everyone is using the same template, you can test on one site and then rollout the improvements to all teams.

    If the league is doing a lot of optimization, then this could bea huge advantage. Based on their site designs, though, I'm not sure they are.

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  6. I wonder how much of this has to do with protecting future digital rights especially for potentially streaming/broadcasting live content?

    I know MLB has had some success with this and the on-line transmission of NCAA March Madness games has generated massive ($60M+) revenues for NCAA and CBS.

    If the NHL cedes any local control to teams, it strikes me that it will be that much more difficult for the NHL to lay claim to any future revenues generated by live transmission of games (or other digital/electronically generated revenues).

    If I were the Leafs/Rangers - not only would I be pushing to be able to modernize my web-site, I'd also be pushing to establish precedents that would put a stake in the ground re. determing which web-generated revenues are mine and which are more likely to be shared with the NHL.

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