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Drive To Survive Brought New Fans To F1. Can An NHL Reality Series Do The Same For Hockey? | CBC News

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Just as the Stanley Cup Finals kicked off last week, the NHL announced its next big play: a reality series about its hockey stars, from the producers of Netflix’s ultra-popular Drive to Survive. But can a reality program do for hockey what Drive to Survive did for Formula One racing — or was that lightning in a bottle?

It’s all about effective storytelling, an easier feat with individual sports, say experts

Jenna Benchetrit · CBC News

· Posted: Jun 11, 2024 4:00 AM EDT | Last Updated: June 11

Connor McDavid has had plenty of help from supporting players like goalie Stuart Skinner en route to his first Stanley Cup final. McDavid will be one of the stars of an upcoming reality series from the NHL about its hockey players, as the NHL looks to get a foot in reality TV. (Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)Just as the Stanley Cup Finals kicked off last week, the NHL announced its next big play: a reality series about its hockey stars, from the producers of the ultra-popular Formula One: Drive to Survive.

The still-untitled show, which airs on Prime Video in October, will follow Cup finalists Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and Matthew Tkachuk of the Florida Panthers, as well as players from teams including the Boston Bruins, the Nashville Predators and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

NHL officials have made one thing clear: They’ve seen what these shows have done for others, and they are ready to receive. But can a reality program do for hockey what Drive to Survive did for F1 and professional race car driving — or was that lightning in a bottle?

“I myself was really not a motorsport fan until F1 and Formula One: Drive to Survive,” said Ellen Hyslop, co-founder of The Gist, a sports media brand aimed at women.

The Saint John, N.B., resident, a self-proclaimed hockey obsessive, said she now tunes into F1 races on the weekend.

While she says it’s been interesting to watch how The Gist’s audience has responded to F1 since Drive to Survive premiered, she’s skeptical of whether an NHL-focused version of the series will have the same impact on hockey.

“There is a lot of that on-ice mess and drama and chirping that I think is so much fun,” and that would lend itself well to the reality series format, she said. (Some Drive to Survive fans have likened the show to the Real Housewives properties aired on Bravo.)

Netflix has tried the Drive to Survive treatment with other sports, albeit with moderate success. Break Point followed the lives of a handful of star tennis players, while Full Swing brought fans behind the scenes of professional golf.

Further adding to those challenges is that hockey is a team-oriented sport — and gen Z and millennials are more invested in individual athletes than teams, Hyslop said.

“Athletes that play an individual sport recognize that, yes, what they do on court or on the links or on the track is important.

“But they also recognize that they are in the business of entertainment — and that their personality is also what’s going to get them sponsorship money, get them fans, get them followers.”

Executive producer Paul Martin acknowledged the different dynamic, telling The Associated Press that while “our type of storytelling hinges on individuals being able to drive those kind of narratives … you have to be super respectful that it is a team sport.” 

‘Everybody has seen the effects’ on F1, says NHL exec

Since the Netflix series Drive to Survive — featuring behind-the-scenes footage of the usually secretive racing teams — debuted in 2019, the audience for F1 has skyrocketed. In May, it was confirmed for its fifth and sixth seasons.  (Netflix)The NHL has dabbled with the reality format before, making several seasons of HBO’s 24/7 documentary series. Individual teams have also tried their hand with doc-style programming, from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ All or Nothing documentary to the Boston Bruins’ Behind the B web series.

The league will take any chance it gets to grow the sport and develop its audience, NHL executive Steve Mayer said in a press release announcing the upcoming series.

“I think everybody has seen the effects that Drive to Survive had on Formula One racing, Full Swing has done a lot for golf, and obviously the storytelling that’s involved is unique and very different,” Mayer said.

WATCH | How Netflix won the race to make F1 a global sport: 

Formula 1’s rising popularity driven by Netflix seriesThere’s been a surge in popularity for Formula 1 among younger fans, thanks to Netflix’s Drive to Survive series. One of the biggest superstars to emerge is Formula 1’s only Black driver, Lewis Hamilton, who recently signed on as a producer for an F1 movie starring Brad Pitt.

Formula One has grown exponentially in recent years. Average viewership of F1 races in the U.S. almost doubled from 554,000 in 2018 to 1.11 million in 2023, according to ESPN, which airs the sport on several of its platforms.

Part of that is from the crossover effect that Drive to Survive had on the actual sport, after it premiered in 2019 and grew in popularity during the pandemic.

According to a May 2022 report by viewership analytics firm Nielsen, 2.3 per cent more people were inspired by Drive to Survive to watch an F1 event that year. Thirty-four per cent of respondents said they became a fan of the sport after watching the series. 

The sport’s female fanbase has also grown, with the F1 organization saying that Drive to Survive has been “vital” in drawing women to races. Around 40 per cent of F1 fans were women as of November 2022, up eight per cent from five years before, its CEO Stefano Domenicali said at the time.

“It’s been really interesting to see how our audience has responded to the sport ever since Drive to Survive came out,” Hyslop said.

But she noted that F1’s initial intention was to bring the sport to a more global audience, not necessarily a more female one. The NHL, similarly, has been trying to reach more eyeballs in the U.S.

“I think from a geography perspective, [the NHL is] kind of taking a page out of the same book as F1 on that side of things,” she said.

A ‘natural extension’ of Rogers streaming deal

Toronto’s Auston Matthews chases Edmonton’s McDavid during a March game. Rogers announced a streaming deal with Amazon Prime’s Video that saw the Canadian telecom sell its NHL broadcasting rights to the streaming giant. Prime will stream regular season hockey games exclusively in Canada on Monday nights for the next two seasons. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)Formula One: Drive to Survive is a case study in “using effective storytelling to really sell your sport product to new fans and new consumers,” said Cheri Bradish, a sport marketing associate professor and director of the Future of Sport Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University.

A mask-off moment for the NHL won’t hurt either, she said — literally.

“It’s always been known from a marketing perspective that those sports that don’t have the helmets and that are closer to the fans, such as professional basketball players, it’s easier for average fans and consumers to relate to those players.”

The announcement also comes after Rogers announced a streaming deal with Amazon Prime Video, which saw the Canadian telecom sell its NHL broadcasting rights to the streaming giant. Prime will exclusively stream regular season hockey games in Canada on Monday nights for the next two seasons.

“This is a natural extension, and a why and an output of that partnership,” said Bradish.

For Hyslop, it’s also an indication that the way people are consuming sports is changing — especially with a move away from linear television.

“It’s really, really interesting that Prime continues to be a place in a space where they’re housing hockey content…. I think that that’s a great signal that the NHL is growing and doing the right things, especially in the U.S. market.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jenna Benchetrit is a senior writer with the business content unit at CBC News. She has also covered entertainment and education stories. A Montrealer based in Toronto, Jenna holds a master’s degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca.

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