It's Stanley Cup season - or, as Toronto Maple Leafs players call it, golf season - and that means millions of viewers are parked before their TV sets, fists clasped tight in anticipation and eyes riveted to one fateful spot: the goal.
For advertisers, that kind of engagement is priceless, and more companies are paying to get their brands behind the net, thanks to one bit of technology that is just starting to expand across the National Hockey League. Ad space is going beyond the boards, with virtual signs that project brands on to the glass for TV viewers, without blocking the view of spectators actually in the seats behind the goal.
With these experiments, hockey is taking its cue from other sports. Baseball has used green-screen signs for years to increase the number of ads that can cycle through behind home plate. Many soccer leagues in Europe use software to superimpose virtual ads near the goal, where physical signs could get in the way of stampeding cleats.
But virtual ads, while not entirely new, underscore the efforts by broadcasters and advertisers to combat the personal video recorder. The high-profile sports event is one of the last vestiges of television's power to draw millions together to watch a program - and, crucially, to watch its ads - but it is still vulnerable to the PVR effect. So on-field (or in the NHL's case, on-Plexiglas) advertisements are the sports world's equivalent of product placement: they are unavoidable.
This playoff season is the first time many hockey fans will notice the signs, as they pay closer attention to teams they might not normally watch. The NHL started experimenting with virtual ads three years ago on broadcasts of New York Rangers' games. Since then it has expanded quickly. Eight teams now use the technology, and six of those have made it to the playoffs.
"The advantage of it trickling out is that we can see if it works the right way," said David Proper, the NHL's executive vice-president of media distribution and strategy. If it does, there's no reason it couldn't be in every rink. "In six months, there may be a whole lot more I can tell you. … It's in its early stages. But we're cautiously moving forward."
What makes the league cautious is a concern over interfering with the viewing experience on TV (the whole thing is invisible to those at the rink). Virtual ads work this way: Chicago-based Sportvision Inc., which serves all eight teams using them, superimposes the ad image on the glass. They do this with special camera equipment that works with the company's software to feed the graphic image into the broadcast. The equipment keeps the image steady and realistic as the camera zooms and pans to follow the action.
Broadcasters pay Sportvision a flat licensing fee to use the technology, and then keep the extra ad revenue they collect from the new space it opens up.
This kind of ad space is more important now than ever before. TV rights for sporting events are getting more expensive, as shown by the NHL's record 10-year deal, signed this week with Comcast Corp. and NBC and worth a whopping $1.9-billion (U.S.) in total.
Those broadcasts need to be paid for. And as viewers use PVRs to digitally record games, joining a playoff match 15 minutes late and speeding through commercial breaks to catch up, ads that are integrated into the game itself are becoming more valuable.
"We've had a very positive response," said Peter Luukko, president of Philadelphia Flyers owner Comcast-Spectacor, itself majority-owned by Comcast Corp., which holds the regional broadcast rights.
"The dashers [the physical signs on the rink boards]are a season-long commitment, or in some cases, even longer. This gives you an opportunity to sell by game, or by period. It's just an extra flexibility that we can offer advertisers."
Flexibility can work for the broadcasters too, especially during lucrative Stanley Cup games. Comcast-Spectacor has increased its prices for the virtual glass ads now that the Flyers are in the playoffs, Mr. Luukko said - something it can't do with its other advertisers, many of whom locked in their boards deals long before a playoff run was certain.
So far, only regional broadcasters are involved - that's why you'll spot these ads if you catch a local feed of a game between the Rangers and the Washington Capitals, for example, both of whom use the technology. In Canada, the ads are used on Rogers Sportsnet broadcasts of Vancouver Canucks and the Ottawa Senators games.
"We fully expect this to be part of our national television rights holders' future," the NHL's Mr. Proper said. That's good news for NBC's investment - and for whoever scores the Canadian national rights when they come up for renegotiation in 2013.
Other sports have been skeptical about virtual ads. The National Football League and National Basketball Association have both steered clear, for example. Major League Soccer has not used them either - but is now looking into it, according to a source familiar with the matter.
The Canadian Football League is also cautious, but it's watching other leagues to see how well virtual ads can be integrated into the broadcast, said chief marketing officer Rob Assimakopoulos. He's keen to avoid the college football route - virtual first-down lines that embed a sponsor's logo - but he thinks virtual ads could be used along the sidelines, if the image was clean and not overused.
Sportvision contends that what it does for baseball - a green screen similar to the one that allows weather reporters to walk around in front of virtual maps - eliminates concerns about choppy virtual images.
"If we were working with a league that hadn't adopted that yet, we would definitely encourage it," said Cary Kaplan, president of Cosmos Sports, a sports marketing firm that consults with leagues and individual teams on their marketing efforts. "It's so important for their advertisers, because it's subliminal. In the regular season, not even the playoffs, it's 20,000 people each game for 40 games, staring at your sign for two-and-a-half hours. That's a lot of exposure. You drive by a sign on the highway, it's one second."
Hockey-loving advertisers themselves are just catching on.
"That's definitely something we would consider," said J.J. Hochrein, vice president of strategic marketing at Canadian Tire, which is a marketing partner with the NHL, but has not yet used virtual ads. "Hockey's a big part of our business, and if it's a way that we can get a message out, absolutely."
With this much interest, it's likely that not only will virtual ads expand across the NHL, but in the future they could cover more parts of the glass than just behind the net. The NHL says any expansion will be slow and cautious, to avoid upsetting viewers. But it will happen eventually, predicts Rob Tuchman, a sports marketing expert and president of New York-based sports and entertainment holding company Skylight Group.
"You look back at old hockey games now, and you see only a couple signs [on the boards] It's like, wow, there was no advertising. I think 20, 30 years from now - maybe even sooner - and you'll be amazed that it was just these static signs along the boards."