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The ads are virtual, but for some NHL fans, the irritation is real

Not all hockey fans watching games from home are on board with the digital ads wrapping around NHL rinks this season. The league has been looking into using digitally enhanced dasherboards for almost a decade.

Hockey fans watching games at home may not yet be on board with high-tech ads

The NHL is making use of a new type of high-tech ad in its hockey broadcasts this season, where ads are presented virtually on the boards around the ice. Some fans have not welcomed the digitally enhanced dasherboards, which are visible to viewers at home but not to those in an arena. (Submitted by Supponor)

Hockey fans have taken notice of the high-tech virtual ads being displayed league-wide on arena boards during NHL broadcasts this season.

The National Hockey League told CBC News that it's "pleased with the integration" of the new digitally enhanced dasherboards (DEDs), despite dealing with "a couple of technical glitches" along the way.

But the league may not be drawing the kind of attention it's seeking from DEDs — if some of the hot takes on social media are any indication.

In short, not everyone is impressed with what they have seen on their screens.

"Once you notice it, it's really hard to un-notice," said Darcy Warrington, a Saskatoon hockey-watcher who has found the appearance of the new ads jarring.

The ads are dynamic and can change rapidly during the broadcast — much to the chagrin of viewers at home like Warrington, who find the visual transitions distracting when play is on.

"Maybe I'll get used to it, but so far it's hard to watch," he said.

Virtual ads generate more revenue

Michael Naraine, an associate professor of sport management at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., said he believes these types of ads are here to stay.

"Coming out of COVID, sport organizations are looking for new revenue streams to diversify, and so dynamic ads aren't going anywhere any time soon (just like helmet decals and sweater patches)," Naraine said via email.

Being able to rotate more ads through the same space creates the opportunity to generate more revenue, he said, adding that the impetus to use them will become stronger as the technology improves and bugs are worked out.

The NHL has certainly been eager to see the ads deployed, having worked for years with Supponor, a London-based virtual ad company, to deliver the final product. The ads aren't visible to fans watching the game at an arena.

"Supponor and the NHL have been discussing the potential use of digitally enhanced dasherboards for almost a decade," David Patton, senior vice-president of business development at the British company, told CBC News in an email.

Patton said upgrades were made to league arenas, and the technology was gradually tested out, eventually leading to this season's rollout. There are a total of 32 NHL arenas in Canada and the United States.

ESPN reports that "tens of millions" of dollars have been invested along the way to make these virtual ads a reality.

'Distracting and disruptive'

For Ontario hockey fan David Sutton, the ads are "distracting and disruptive to the experience of watching and feeling involved in the game."

They're also covering up the boards and their markings, which Sutton sees as key points of interest for people watching hockey games.

Hockey fan David Sutton says the boards surrounding the hockey rink and the markings they carry — like those seen during a Golden Knights-Coyotes pre-season game earlier this month in Las Vegas — are key points of interest for people watching hockey at home. (Sam Morris/The Associated Press)

"Seeing the marks on the board, be they extensions of ice markings or even marks where the puck has hit, is part of feeling involved and integrated with the game," he said in an email.

Yet these arena-enveloping boards are ideally suited for displaying ads to these same viewers, said Hannah Holmes, an assistant professor of economics at McMaster University in Hamilton.

"The NHL is the perfect league to experiment/embrace this technology because of their infrastructure, namely the boards around the ice," Holmes wrote in an email.

More to come?

Holmes said that if the ads prove successful, they'll likely stick around and spur the use of other new technology in future.

"Hopefully viewership of games won't decline because of the distraction the ads cause; losing viewers reduces the impact of any advertising and lowers revenues across the board (no pun intended)," she said.

A young New York Rangers fan watches a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning through the glass, in New York on Tuesday. (Julia Nikhinson/The Associated Press)

Sutton said he isn't optimistic that the NHL will change course, even if fans object.

"I would think at some point, the younger viewers will know nothing other than the use of digital boards, and at some point, it won't matter," he said.

"Sad, as they are being presented an artificial product and not sharing in the experience."

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