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NHL-MLBAM deal will help bring hockey into the future

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Hockey wants to be ready for an online world.

The NHL finally answered the calls of the fans who wanted better online offerings Tuesday by announcing "a groundbreaking digital media rights partnership" with MLB Advanced Media that will completely transform the way we're able to follow and watch hockey on the Internet.

The deal awards MLBAM the rights to distribute live out-of-market games and operate various other media properties, including the NHL GameCenter subscription service, NHL Network, NHL.com, the league's 30 team websites, all NHL apps and any new products or platforms developed by the two companies.

There's a lot to unpack in the deal, which will bring a significant influx of cash to the NHL, but it also appears to be undeniably good news for fans. The NHL has lagged behind other leagues like MLB and the NBA in the quality of its digital services for too long, and rather than continue to pour money into an infrastructure that wasn't impressing, hockey is now turning to a company that's at the cutting edge of streaming live media.

And while there might be some apprehension about one major sports league outsourcing its media operations to another, the reality sounds far better. Beyond the fact that the move gives the league some welcomed extra income, there are reasons to be excited about the NHL-MLBAM deal as a fan.

This is a serious, expansive tech company

You can think of MLBAM as "baseball" because its jointly owned by MLB's owners (for now -- more on that later), but the company has been expanding its reach far beyond the nation's pastime for years. A short list of the company's current offerings outside baseball include HBO Now (not to be confused with HBO Go), The WWE Network, WatchESPN, Playstation's Vue streaming service and CBS Sports' March Madness app. The PGA also agreed to a rights deal with MLBAM before the NHL did.

So we're talking about a company that's on pace for roughly $900 million in revenue this year with partnerships involving many of the industry's biggest players. From personal experience, many of these services have easily surpassed what the NHL has previously offered through GameCenter. And because of how long MLB has been investing in the technology being developed at MLBAM, it's able to continue innovating in ways that put it near the top of the field when it comes to live streaming.

This is a company that was designed for a world where mobile devices and laptops would take over for televisions, and over the past decade it's established itself as a leader in doing just that. Whether you're a cord-cutter, an out-of-market fan or just want options when it comes to how you watch hockey, you should be happy that MLBAM is the company taking the reins.

MLBAM is planning to go independent

You also probably won't have to call MLBAM by that name too much longer. The Verge's Ben Popper reports in his fantastic feature about the emerging tech giant that it's planning to be spun off by MLB into an entirely separate company soon with a valuation north of $5 billion.

So not only is there little reason to believe baseball will be meddling in the NHL's media matters anyway, but soon, that relationship will look entirely different. MLBAM will be spun off into a new company, presumably with a new name, and then it will simply be a massive independent streaming company that's happens to have been built on a foundation of baseball.

MLBAM may have a history of being aggressive in taking down GIFs and other content that's potentially infringing copyrights when it comes to that sport, but there are indications those policies were largely resulting from MLB pushing them. When it comes to the NHL, the league will reportedly be the one making these decisions and that means there's little reason to expect policies to change directly because of this deal.

NHL is retaining editorial control

This is the final key point that should leave fans confident MLBAM's occasionally unfortunate policies won't extend to hockey. The NHL is retaining complete editorial control over its various media properties, and commissioner Gary Bettman said after announcing the deal that "We’re going to control our content, baseball isn’t turning hockey into baseball." Whatever that means, it doesn't sound like MLBAM or MLB will be telling NHL how to run its editorial side any time soon.

The degree to which that's good news probably depends on your opinion of NHL's current digital offerings, but there are also reasons to believe things will continue getting better there, too. Bettman said that the league will now be able to provide more resources to NHL Network, which is moving to MLB Network's headquarters in Secaucus, N.J., and that's welcomed news to anyone who has ever tried tuning in to the channel's incredible lack of original programming.

This basically makes it sound like the NHL is replacing its old technology with MLBAM's, and from a distance that appears to be a huge upgrade. Let largely the same people work with better technology and they'll undeniably produce better work. That tech should also get into the hands of the public in some ways, too.

Here come the stats

If you wanted stats, MLBAM has been known for producing a wide variety of interesting numbers for baseball fans. The company helped pioneer Pitch F/X, a pitch-tracking data service, with Sportvision, and also provides statistics for MLB.com and the sport's other websites.

Pitch F/X is the kind of game-changing information that hockey fans can potentially hope to get out of the deal. A public resource made by MLBAM and Sportvision that's used by a wide variety of analysts, including Brooks Baseball and FanGraphs, it provides detailed pitch-by-pitch information including not just speed but details about movement, release points, etc. The ability to analyze how pitchers use their various pitches and maintain velocity from game-to-game and year-to-year has been powerful in the online baseball community.

We've already seen hockey fans make serious headway in developing their own set of useful statistics, including Corsi and PDO, but the technology behind MLBAM gives the NHL the potential to go above and beyond. Even with reports that the league's upcoming chip technology may be delayed as the two sides figure out how to implement it in an effective and affordable way, there's reason to be optimistic about the execution of these plans with MLBAM in the fold. They've been working with statisticians, data engineers and analysts for years to figure out the best ways to compile and present useful information to fans, and now hockey gets to use these tools as well.

If it sets the current plan back a little bit while the new team settles in and the process is refined, that's fine. The end result will be a robust set of publicly available statistics that's unlike anything the league has ever provided.

★★★

All in all, this is what we wanted from the NHL. We wanted a league that could see where things were going, invest in technology and give us new, better ways to be hockey fans. We wanted the kind of expansive statistics that are provided free of charge to fans of MLB and the NBA. This move shows that the league takes those desires seriously and is willing to put in the time and effort to see that it happens.

Not everything will be perfect, of course, as anyone who watches baseball can attest. MLBAM isn't perfect and the days of a "middle out compression" bringing us the crystal-clear 4K to watch Jonathan Toews make goofy faces on the ice haven't quite arrived. It presumably won't fix the myriad blackout issues. Still, if you wanted to see a league that's trying, and making the right moves to be put in a position to do some cool things, here you go. The MLBAM era will be different, and it will almost definitely be better.