The NHL has partnered with multinational enterprise application software provider SAP in announcing a revamped fan-facing stats initiative, designed to bring extra meaning to the usual flurry of numbers associated with sports statistics.
The new site, powered by SAP’s HANA Enterprise Cloud Service technology, is being billed as a “statistical experience” by the company, an important distinction if you’ve ever found yourself looking at the overwhelming quantity of seemingly meaningless statistics flooding internet fan chat pages.
The goal of the new NHL Stats initiative is to foster real-time personalized fan engagement with data, meant to deepen fans’ understanding of and appreciation for the game while not bogging them down in a meaningless fog of numbers.
To that end, the new approach is better suited to mobile engagement, and is more appealingly visual without dumbing down the substance of the content.
The announcement is two-pronged in the sense that there are two offerings. One is fan-facing, the new NHL Stats website. The second is that SAP now counts the NHL among its clients using its products to run its back office operations.
While both announcements are good news for the NHL, it will be the new stats website that matters to hockey fans.
It also brings the NHL squarely into the new reality of digital marketing, with its emphasis on mobile real-time engagement and meeting fan expectations.
“It is no longer a world where people are just accepting whatever is given to them,” said SAP lead designer Anthony Jakubiak. “They want to take information so that they can understand it deeper themselves.”
The previous NHL.com site hadn’t been seriously updated in about eight years, a lifetime in internet terms.
NHL chief operating officer John Collins joked joked during a press conference held Friday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California that the new partnership was like going “from a jalopy to a Lamborghini.”
Commissioner Gary Bettman said, “The stats and data that we will be providing can give any fan interested, especially an avid fan, insight into the game, and perhaps give a newer casual fan another way to better understand our game.”
The timing of the overhaul couldn’t be better, with the sudden demise of CapGeek.com, easily the most useful and reliable source for NHL-related statistical analysis. A true labour of love developed by Nova Scotian Matthew Wuest, CapGeek was the only place to turn for meaningful statistics. It was abruptly taken offline in January owing to Matthew’s personal health issues. Fans have been mourning the site’s end and wishing a speedy recovery to Matthew since then.
What the widespread love for CapGeek demonstrated is that there is an appetite for a wide variety of fans, from hardcore statsheads to more casual hockey enthusiasts, to dig deeper into hockey metrics.
Like anything good, you don’t realize how great it is until it’s gone. And the absence of CapGeek has left a void. So the new NHL Stats site goes some way to addressing that suddenly apparent need, only a scant month after CapGeek’s disappearance.
The reinvention of the old NHL stats page by SAP involved a series of design thinking workshops with NHL management, as well as a lengthy stretch of fan engagement exercises that ran the gamut from talking to fans in sports bars and arenas to developing wireframe sketches of the site for fan input.
“We engaged with the fans early, often and throughout the entire process,” said Jakubiak in a Q&A follow-up after the press conference. “Fans are looking for context. If you look at the old site, the information is there, the stats are there. But it’s all in table, and there’s no context to really allow fans to understand why these stats are important or how they play the game.”
As the Stats page innovations are rolled out, fans will be able to meaningfully apply statistical analysis of almost any type across varying periods of time, whether entire seasons, individual games, periods, or the last five-minutes of play.
Jakubiak stated that SAP intends to eliminate the time lag completely, which currently dictates that statistics become available to fans approximately 30 minutes after a game is over. “By April, we should be able to post these advanced stats after each period,” he said, “and then going into next season our goal is to get this as close to real time as possible.”
“What this is really doing is taking things that have been done on an ad hoc basis, requiring a lot of human judgement and that element, and getting it right.” – NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman
By making some effort to meaningfully contextualize the data, SAP is engaging in a form of what amounts to digital storytelling, or a narrative approach to understanding how data enhances the narratives of players and teams, thereby driving user engagement with the platform.
The NHL Stats overhaul will happen in several stages.
The first stage, available immediately, consists of the new site design, which is cleaner, more meaningful and just generally easier to look at and to engage with. It encompasses an interactive leader board, highlights trending statistics, and introduces 45 enhanced stats to the NHL.com site.
They’ve also built an Enhanced Stats explainer page, which helps the new user understand and contextualize an otherwise overwhelming quantity of information.
Phase two, to be introduced this April, will provide fans the tools to slice and dice data using an advanced filtering and visualization component, which can be used to compare teams or players by a variety of metrics and across variable time periods.
Phases three and four will be rolled out starting next season and over the next couple of years, and will include advanced stats filtering, playoff prediction profiles, player comparison tools, team and player indexes, and historical data. Over time, these stats will be further bolstered by improvements in puck and player tracking technology.
Something worth noting about that puck and player tracking technology is that it will not be camera-based. It will be an infrared emitter and chip-based technology developed by Sportvision, the same company that created the infamous “glowing puck” technology almost instantly forgotten by fans who reacted indignantly to its introduction in the ’90s.
While that “glowing puck” initiative was quickly shelved, it was the beginning of developing the technology behind tracking puck speed, distance and location that will be folded into this new method of tracking stats.
The most wow-factor aspect of the upcoming features is the integration of historical data dating back to the NHL’s 1917-1918 season. Using these tools, fans can measure stats relating to their favourite players and then compare them to historical favourites like Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Wayne Gretzky, or Gordie Howe.
SAP has spent the last five years taking all of the handwritten game sheets and digitizing them, and then extracted that data into the NHL database.
“We’re not just doing visualizations for the point of making visualizations,” said NHL Director of Digital Business Development Chris Foster. “We want to make sure that they help tell a story, that they improve the experience, and that fans can really get a better understanding of the game.”
At the press conference on Friday, Gary Bettman summed up the goal of the NHL’s collaboration with SAP. “What this is really doing is taking things that have been done on an ad hoc basis, requiring a lot of human judgement and that element, and getting it right.”
With the NHL’s centennial coming up in the 2017-’18 season, advanced metrics applied across a century of stats will have become the new normal.
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