NHL and EPIX Road to the Winter Classic


as seen here: IBTMEDIA

Reports started coming out late last week that HBO and the NHL had parted ways on the popular “Road To The Winter Classic” series, which to many hockey fans and fans of amazing content in sports, was pretty devastating. While “Hard Knocks” has plateaued with HBO a bit, the NHL access was still fresh and maintained rich content.  Every year seems to continue to build into the next.  Factor in two franchises that “get it,” in terms of fan activation, with dynamic leaders, Ted Leonsis’ Washington Capitals and the Chicago Blackhawks president John McDonough, and this year’s lead up to New Year’s Day was much anticipated to be the best in the series.

After the news was confirmed that the NHL-HBO partnership was a no-go, despairing hockey fans started to speculate. Would it end up on NBC Sports Network, which carries massive amounts of hockey and was a huge partner in the grow

That’s where the education begins. The premium channel, carried in about 50 million homes, professes to be TV and experience everywhere on all devices, and is similar in many accounts to channels like HBO and Showtime. They have tried to be bold with big events in the entertainment landscape, and have recently made waves in the “sports issues” space with the documentary “SCHOOLED: The Price of College Sports,” and the soon to debut “Forgotten Four,” about the four players who broke the color barrier in football the year before Jackie Robinson broke it in baseball.  Regardless, the channel has never really had a series, let alone a sports series. The details are still to come as to how all fans will be able to get the programming. Fans should rest easy that the NHL series will fall under EPIX’s TV Everywhere umbrella, as options like streaming are a cornerstone of the channel’s philosophy. In fact, EPIX was the first premium network to make its films available for streaming.

Specific details on how fans can access the “Road to the Winter Classic” series are to be revealed next week in a press event at Nationals Park in Washington, as the kickoff for the Winter Classic takes shape.

But why EPIX and how does it make sense? One of the biggest reasons remains the NHL’s willingness to take chances on partners that other leagues will not. They risked a lot with their NBC arrangement and it paid off; they have been more aggressive in the digital world and it has been fruitful; they have pushed to showcase new stars in unconventional ways and they have built some fresh new faces. None came without risk, and not every venture has succeeded so we shall see with the EPIX move.

The biggest reason that this could work is because of the content. Content is king after all, as we repeatedly hear in our business. HBO became known as the home of anthology programming in sports that was raw and unvarnished; an F Bomb here, some stitches there, all packaged around great story lines and naturally people followed these stories. Moving a raw all-access series like “Road to the Winter Classic, as has been tried elsewhere, to a place more mainstream loses its grittiness and limits some of the creative process.  Going to EPIX on the other hand gives the series a chance to be much bolder. The series now reconnects with its creator Ross Greenburg, who has worked with EPIX on several projects, including “Forgotten Four,” and will now have a firm hand in re-shaping not just the lead-up to the Winter Classic, but to the February matchup between the Sharks and the Kings as well – this all helps on the content side of things. Giving Greenburg creative license to be edgy and delve deep into storylines is what fans crave. EPIX is willing to fit the bill for the lavish production value needed for this type of a show, and can provide the outlet fans are begging for. Hockey is big, entertainment, is bigger, and Greenburg has always gotten that when he was running HBO Sports.

So will this move work for all? The EPIX products tied to sports thus far have been solid, albeit with an audience that is smaller than HBO. However, many scoffed when House of Cards went to Netflix, or even when the NHL went to NBC, and those have worked out pretty well. People will find the content, and reports have been that both the NHL and EPIX will figure out a way to deliver that content on multiple screens.  It’s less about the channel, and more about the deliverability and the content on all devices for fans of a certain age.  The value proposition is simple: make the content cool and easy to access and we will watch. No one could find TruTV before CBS and Turner lobbed March Madness games there, and only a handful of fans knew where AMC was before “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” ended up there, so maybe this is no different.

If it works it will be epic (pun intended). If it doesn’t, it was a grand experiment with some great ideas. We will find out more about the plans next week, but for now, the NHL created some buzz and found a willing partner, and that is positive for all fans of the game, who now will get their fix of unvarnished behind the scenes action, HBO or not.

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