NHL Video No Longer Only On Verizon: ‘He Shoots, He Scores’ On The iPad

Deals for exclusive mobile video rights to Verizon Wireless and Bell Mobility made sense for the National Hockey League in 2007. Now they are the reason for the greatest gap in a North American digital strategy aimed at growing audience as well as dollars. The NHL hopes to bridge that gap for the 2010-2011 season by mixing free basic apps with premium versions for its partners — and by going portable with live video on the iPad before it can go mobile with the iPhone.

NHL GameCenter 2010 Premium for iPad, which offers video highlights, condensed games and live game radio, is in the iTunes store now. It launched quietly over the weekend and already has been downloaded “hundreds” of times at $19.99 a pop. GameCenter Live — the version with live streaming games — is due in about two weeks and will run $79.99 at $169. [Note: The iPad app has the lower rate in the FAQ; the NHL says the lower rate is the price for mobile but the iPad version will run $169, the same as the broadband package.]

The league retained the rights to portable devices not meant to be used as phones, ie tablets. But it will have to wait for Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and Verizon to make an iPhone deal official before it can offer a premium app as robust as the one launched in Europe last season. (Verizon’s plans to start selling the iPad this week are a welcome coincidence but not needed to move ahead with the new apps.)

In the meantime, Verizon customers can pick from three GameCenter versions (basic, premium, live) on Android or BlackBerry, including NHL Gamecenter Live, while iPhone and iPod Touch users are limited to the basic app. Apps also are available through the BlackBerry store and the Ovi Store for Nokia (NYSE: NOK). Anyone with browser access on a smartphone should be able to take advantage of a newly optimized mobile NHL.com. The GameCenter apps were developed with NeuLion.

Half-million downloads: At the current pace, the NHL estimates it will hit a half-million downloads this week, a figure NHL SVP Perry Cooper says “we’re happy with out of the gate.” Nearly 10 percent of those are paid, with the of the paid iPhones activity coming from Europe. While some apps count on in-app upsells to convert free to paid, so far, the league says, 4 out of 5 iPhone downloads in Europe start as premium.

The 450,000 free downloads are as important to the NHL as the paid, dovetailing with a league-wide emphasis on growing new fans. Cooper sees mobile bringing in a lot of new customers. COO John Collins compares the digital activity to the Winter Classic, the NHL’s new News Year’s Day tradition of rivals playing outdoors on NBC (NYSE: GE). “Both of those strategies hopefully expose casual hockey fans, casual sports fans, and bring them back into the mothership — NHL.com, NHL Mobile, NHL Broadband.” It also creates what Collins calls a “path” for sponsors and advertisers.

Without going in to financial specifics, Collins said total revenues for the league have grown by 85 percent over the past four years. with about $330 million in advertising and sponsorship revenue. He says “maybe” one fourth of that — $82.5 million — can be attributed to the NHL Network, NHL.com, NHL Mobile.

They’ve added 20 new digital products and see potential for many more in Europe, particularly with versions that highlight players from certain areas. “Talk about a market that is under served and has a voracious appetite,” says Collins. A version in Finland makes it possible to track the top 20 Finnish players in the NHL.

But the real game changer for the U.S. will be mobile video. The league will have a chance to craft new deals when the Verizon and Bell exclusives expire next year – and I’d expect them to lean more toward the MLBAM model than another exclusive mobile package. In the meantime, Verizon sales of the iPhone should help it make some inroads on that device.

First look: The league provided me with a review code for GameCenter Premium on iPad My first take: I wish I’d had this in the press box when I was logging a lot of hours covering hockey. In my current role as a living room viewer, it’s the kind of companion app that the NBA launched with on iPad in April. Some features:

— Clicking on a game in the schedule brings up a rink where action is tracked in real time or filtered.
— Mid-game I was able to see high-quality in-game photos of Edmonton-Calgary action and while more than a dozen video clips when I checked immediately after the game
— Click on the number of a player on the ice and a stat card comes up with real-time info from that game.
— Non-game player pages includes archive video for specific goals.
— The live game audio offers home and away choices.
— The home screen features a rotating twitter feed.
— Condensed games allow fans to see the pivotal moments in a game without investing a couple of hours. This has been popular in Europe.

Casual fans probably will want to stick with the basic iPhone app. Fans who simply like to watch a game may skip the apps altogether. But, as is the case with other in-depth major league apps, the real market is the serious fan who follows a team, a player or the sport. This should be enough to get their attention. Will they go up another $60 for the live version?