Infront looks to the bigger digital picture
by Martin Ross
Infront Sports & Media is undertaking one of its largest digital operations at a sports event to date at ice hockey’s 2017 IIHF World Championship in Paris and Cologne. So just how extensive is the work and what drives it?   Author
19th May 2017, 13:31

The self-perception consistently communicated by Infront is that it is the full-service agency in the market. While those elsewhere will beg to challenge that claim, the push by the Zug-based company in the last decade to establish a 360-degree offering to rights-holders is plain to see. The agency even boasts a mascot design operation (and can take credit for Cooly, the pole-vaulting cow at Zurich’s 2014 European Athletics Championships).

Ice hockey’s World Championships are a case in point. Infront has 15 ‘digital specialists’ on site handling the social media activities around the tournament, while digital and broadcast innovations range from Snapchat Spectacles to 360-degree videos, spider cameras and wireless cameramen zooming around the ice seconds before face off.

A total of 260 Infront-produced videos were published across YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and (Russian social networking site) VK during last year’s tournament in Russia and attracted 19 million video views. The official tournament app was downloaded 385,448 times. Infront is confident that this online traffic will be comfortably exceeded by this year’s event, which culminates with Sunday’s final at Cologne’s Lanxess Arena.

Infront’s digital work on site, alongside the International Ice Hockey Federation's communications team, can be split into three types: coordination of the digital product platforms (such as the Game Cast of the IIHF's website and the Fantasy Game); producing and pushing out digital content; and managing and implementing the social media strategy.

So what is the motivation for Infront to go so far beyond merely hunting for sponsors, producing a broadcast feed and selling media rights around the world in its commercial rights mandate with the international federation (until 2023)? Is there a tangible return on investment or is it just a case of keeping the IIHF - plus their sponsors and broadcasters - satisfied by producing content on their behalf?

Amikam ‘Kimi’ Kranz, Infront’s director of media rights

“We’re not talking about a return on investment yet, we’re looking at the bigger picture,” Amikam Kranz, Infront’s director of media rights, tells Sportcal Insight. “We are ready to invest time, money and human resources to bring the sport to a new level.

“Everyone looks to [more] investment in the digital world in the future, but this is more about reaching new heights and people we couldn’t reach before, due to the limitations of traditional broadcast. This is the IIHF's and our common goal.”

The ‘EVS C-Cast’ technology is one of the innovations on offer in Paris and Cologne. It’s a technology allowing fans to access (free) highlights footage of games on the IIHF’s tournament website produced from eleven different camera angles. Digital content includes, as standard, the live streaming on YouTube of all 64 games, an offering first introduced by Infront in 2012, and clips from the ref cam, a first.

Digital ‘education’ videos have also been introduced on the site to entice fans from non-ice hockey countries, and Julien Schiess, Infront’s digital manager, says that the initiative is designed to explain the sport to novice fans.

He notes: “This is a joint effort with the IIHF. One of the key things is to reach new markets where ice hockey is not present. The focus is [of course] to continue serving the core markets, but the IIHF also wants to reach people that are not served today by the traditional media. The videos to explain the sport are, for example, targeting those fans.”

“We did this animation for the first time in [host country] Russia last year and then we translated it into French and German for this year, and we’ll translate it into Danish next year.”

Rinkside interview with Czech star David Pastrňák

While the thought of ‘Snapchat Spectacles’ might befuddle any sports fan over 40, the service is being offered and headed up by journalist Olga Khmylev, snapping photos from a built-in camera on sunglasses and sharing the exclusive footage to users of the popular platform. There is also an IIHF Fanguide app that can be downloaded to help fans with tips on travel and venues, a popular Instagram page, while the Fantasy Game offers the chance to win tickets to next year’s tournament, Tissot watches or signed pucks.

Content produced at this year’s tournament has also included video interviews with 360-degree views of team dressing rooms.

Schiess remarked: “Every year we try to come up with new things; then when we do a report in the summer with all the partners, we keep what works and change what didn’t work so well. The 360-degree videos are part of this, where we want to try new things.

“We were very sceptical about how you can offer stories through 360 video as it looked quite gimmicky and often didn’t add much value to the viewers. So we tried to bring a new angle to stories.”

Overhead drone footage of Paris and Cologne was also shot, while on-site reporters interview coaches and players before and after games, all providing added inventory to build into the television broadcast output.

Infront established a cloud platform for last year’s European Handball Championships, uploading video content that broadcasters could then use, and the same system has been adopted for the IIHF’s showpiece event this year and will be further expanded at next year’s championships in Denmark.

So does the availability of extra content and new production technologies offer Infront more leverage in media rights negotiations with broadcasters?

“Broadcasters love the additional content we give them. But of course they kind of expect it. It’s not something that they say ‘we love it and we’ll pay you more [for the rights]’”, according to Kranz.

“There is no financial impact but there is a quality impact that broadcasters are pretty grateful for. We’ve done that for years and next year there will be more innovation. It’s something that we expect from ourselves, the IIHF expects it and the broadcasters expect it.”

Some production and digital innovations from the tournament are likely to be adapted and introduced into content produced on behalf of other rights-holders, including the FIS, skiing’s world body, and the European Handball Federation.

The extensive offering from Infront appears to have left IIHF satisfied. The federation told Sportcal Insight: “This digital media project between Infront and the IIHF has blossomed into a true partnership. Starting in the fall season before the next tournament, we get together on a near-weekly basis and set about building a comprehensive digital content strategy. We've identified some content offerings that work well every year, but we are always looking for ways to tinker with our strategy to find exciting ways to introduce ice hockey to new audiences.” 

Looking ahead to Denmark 2018, Schiess predicts increased focus on social media, plus some tweaks to content production after a post-tournament review.

“The Danish organising committee is very advanced in terms of digital media so we’ll do even more with them,” he says. “You can expect something similar [to 2017] but with innovations.”