One big shift in sports broadcasting over the past decade has been an increased prevalence of digital ads on broadcasts, ads that show up only on the broadcast and not in the physical location. The National Hockey League particularly leaned into that ahead of the 2022-23 season, replacing the in-arena ads on the boards with separate ads for those watching game broadcasts. But although that technology reportedly took seven years to develop, it still runs into some major problems from time to time.
That was illustrated in the final four minutes of the Dallas Stars-Minnesota Wild broadcast (Game 4 of their first-round Stanley Cup Playoffs series) Sunday. There, the ads went through a dizzying series of cycles ahead of one faceoff. Here’s how that looked on the national TBS broadcast:
Here are some of the NHL digital ad tech issues that showed up on the TBS broadcast of Stars-Wild Sunday. pic.twitter.com/lcvbIjz34D
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) April 24, 2023
And here’s that looked on the local Wild broadcast on Bally Sports North:
The NHl's ad tech completely loses it's s*** pic.twitter.com/be1vTlOzWJ
— CJ Fogler account may or may not be notable (@cjzero) April 24, 2023
This is one of the more specific meltdowns of the digital ad technology this season, and in a high-profile spot late in a playoff game. But it’s far from the first glitch this technology has had this season, despite that long development cycle before it was actually introduced. Here are a few of the other ones that have popped up:
These new NHL digital ads are wild pic.twitter.com/uN6InE68Zr
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) October 13, 2022
Someone broadcasting this Flames/Kraken game – Root Sports, NHL Network or SN Now – appears to be testing digital board ads again. But thanks to the randomness of the ads, I have no idea which broadcast.
First up we have a promo for the Flyers home opener: pic.twitter.com/UIHKRiHibP
— Lachlan Irvine (@LachInTheCrease) September 28, 2022
#1 – The digital boards eat pucks in play. Depending on the rink, the lighting, and the speed of the puck, by my estimation about 50% of the pucks sent up the boards either completely or partially disappear. In this clip we see it twice in rapid succession … (2/n) pic.twitter.com/uwJQca7wKg
— Dan Bagley (@mrdanbagley) December 6, 2022
For a novice viewer, this is downright catastrophic. It’s hard enough to follow the puck while in normal motion, but having it disappear completely several dozen times per game raises the barrier to entry for a novice fan substantially … (4/n) pic.twitter.com/bvgc1ZXNnM
— Dan Bagley (@mrdanbagley) December 6, 2022
Exacerbating all of these issues is the fact that the digital boards are only displayed on the main cameras. This creates a cognitive disconnect when the broadcast shifts to a secondary camera, particularly one with similar angles, because the digital ads are suddenly not there anymore:
The digital ads have also led to audio delays during broadcasts. The ads are inserted via a separate (presumably cloud) system, which means the main camera feeds must make a round trip to this system before being combined with play-by-play audio. So if you’ve heard your favorite broadcaster describe something a moment before you see it happen on your TV screen, that’s because the delay on the play-by-play audio is not correct when inserted over the main feed.
For his part, though, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman insisted in December that not only is there no problem here, these ads are actually somehow an attraction for fans:
“The polling we do with our fans gives us the feedback that it’s a non-issue. Many think it looks better than having the numerous logos on the dasher boards. It’s working extraordinarily well.”
“If what you’re doing is just watching the dashboards – which I guess if you’re reporting on it, you might do – then it may be a distraction. If you’re watching the game, it’s not a distraction.”
That’s far from the first time in his since-1993 tenure as NHL commissioner that Bettman has made comments about fan reaction that seem contrary to the actual fan reaction, as Sean McIndoe noted at The Athletic:
This is just classic Bettman. Whenever he gets asked about negative fan reaction to something that he supports and/or boosts his bottom line, he just makes up a poll or fan feedback that backs him up. We never get to see the poll, obviously — we just have to take his word for it. He did it when he told us that fans agreed the broken point system was working “extraordinarily well.” He did it when he told us fans wanted him to lock out the players in 2004. He did it way back in 1999, in the depths of the dead puck era, when he said fan feedback was that things were going great.
Now he’s doing it for the board ads. Look, some fans hate them. Some find them mildly distracting on occasion. Many barely notice them at all. If Bettman had just said “It’s an important revenue stream for us, there are some glitches and we’re working on them, and we think that reports of fan complaints are overstated,” fine. But no, he has to tell us that fans actually think the ads make the games more watchable. Which … what? Try to imagine a fan saying “gosh, this new advertising platform sure does improve my viewing experience.” If you can’t do it, then apparently your imagination just isn’t as good as Gary Bettman’s.
And while the high-profile meltdowns like Sunday’s particularly illustrate the challenges this system is still having, they’re only part of the overall issue for the many fans bothered by this. But the NHL’s making money off of it, so Bettman will probably continue to claim that it’s an enhancement to the fan experience, despite the many who strongly disagree.
[CJ Fogler on Twitter]