It’s three full hours before the puck drop between the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins for game four of their 2016 Stanley Cup Playoff matchup. But two NBC Sports staffers are huddled by the ice at Madison Square Garden, hashing out a new choose-your-own-adventure-style Facebook Live series that NBC Sports is launching as part of its coverage of the NHL playoffs.
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“Do we want to steer people to Rangers’ fans outside? It means having to go outside and coming back through security,” said Dan Palla, senior manager of social media for NBC Sports. “Is this cool? Because it would add a wrinkle, and we might risk the chance for something to go wrong.”
It used to be, sports networks could count on people to just tune in. But it’s become more important than ever to engage with viewers — and non-viewing fans — across social media. So for NBC Sports, the new Facebook Live series is part of a broader effort to integrate social media into its sports coverage.
“It’s become very important to use social media as a megaphone,” said Lyndsay Signor, director of social media at NBC Sports. “If you’re not watching the game, we want to make sure you’re still getting bite-sized pieces of content to stay informed. If you are watching the game, you’re getting complementary content.”
Back at MSG, the social team decides to stay inside the arena and give viewers the option to go behind the scenes. With three other games airing that night, a game plan was determined. The live stream, which kicks off around 5 p.m., grabs 1,400 viewers within the first five minutes and keeps that audience throughout its 20-minute run. It’s one of three Facebook Live streams NBC Sports produces that night, with others including a Q&A with play-by-play announcer Kenny Albert before the game and an in-studio live video featuring NBC Sports analysts Anson Carter and Jeremy Roenick.
NBC Sports has broadcast rights to every NHL playoff game, with exclusive rights following the first round. It uses social to create an event atmosphere around each match-up. NBC Sports plans to do at least one Facebook Live broadcast every night of the NHL playoffs, which run through mid-June. Signor calls it “anticipation content,” meant to excite fans and get them to watch the game. “It’s a great tool that gives you behind-the-scenes access in real time,” she said.
On the night of the Rangers-Penguins tilt, Palla, Mogg and a social media staffer in Stamford stayed in contact to decide what content got made, which platforms it went to and when. A pregame “shot sheet” gave direction and the ability to bank content. For instance, Mogg’s 360-degree GIF of the MSG rink was published to Instagram and Vine an hour before the game began. On Snapchat, fans could see players leave the locker room and head to the ice.
Once the game starts, the focus is on capturing the atmosphere at the arena while also providing highlights and game information across platforms. A great goal or hit might show up on Facebook, while a score update might publish to Snapchat.
While it’s difficult to predict when a highlight might occur, the social team banks content to be as prepared as possible. For instance, when the Penguins scored their fifth goal, the social team posted a GIF of goalscorer Evgeni Malkin’s jersey to Facebook.
During the game, NBC Sports also relies on Facebook’s Signal product, which helps media companies identify trending topics and content on the platform. “When you’re in the thick of it, you don’t get to step back and assess what else is going on,” said Palla. “We can use Signal on the off chance that there’s something happening in the upper deck that people are going nuts about. It could prove to be as popular as a goal.”
With eight different match-ups in the first round, NBC Sports is focusing its on-site social efforts on marquee match-ups. But as the field narrows and teams get eliminated, the plan will be to embed one or two social people onsite at every game, supported by the team back in Stamford. Overall, NBC Sports has 10 people dedicated to publishing to social, including video and research staffers that help package video highlights and game updates.
“Ideally, we’re putting all of these pieces together — between the on-site access, in-game highlights, other relevant facts and stats — so that it does get you to tune in if you’re not watching,” said Signor.
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