Q&A with Vice President of Digital Production for the NHL Russell Levine

Russell Levine serves as Vice President of Digital Production for the NHL, currently overseeing various components of NHL.com.

Levine graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in History before working for SportTicker, Wall Street Journal Online, The New York Sun and Football Outsiders in different media roles.

Levine first joined the NHL in 1999 as Producer for NHL.com and was twice promoted to Director and Senior Director of Production before named to his current position.


MSBC: What did you do at Michigan that prepared you for your career?

Levine: I had a history degree, so that wasn’t a precise transition into what I ended up doing. But it did teach me to write and organize a coherent thought into a written sentence. The other thing at Michigan that prepared me for this career was I realized that I wanted to keep sports a part of my life because I spent so much of my time — and part of the reason I went to Michigan was to be around — that big-time sports atmosphere. … I did write some for the Michiganensian, covering sports, actually covering hockey, which basically allowed me to tag along on a couple Frozen Four trips and write articles for the yearbook. I think, what I realized was I enjoyed writing and always had a passion for sports and that if I could find some way to make a living and combine the two that would be a good thing. I got lucky coming out of school to get my toe in the door in the sport industry and I haven’t left.

MSBC: How has the digital space changed since you’ve been with the NHL?

Levine: The acceleration has really increased the last five years or so. Even three or four years ago if you asked me what I did, I’d say I was managing digital production for the NHL official website and that’s no longer the case. I manage editorial content and production for all our digital platforms. It’s no longer just broadband web. It’s social, mobile, apps, mobile web, Xbox, Google TVs, YouTube and the other various social media platforms. It’s that acceleration of needing to have your content programmed for a variety of different platforms that has probably been the biggest challenge we’ve faced in the last few years. Content is still king, in my opinion, but you need to be able to program. Cross-platform means you program for all platforms — not one piece of content represented the same on every platform.

MSBC: What do you recall from the early stages of social media?

Levine: I remember with social media, just instantly when I started playing around with Twitter about five years ago, just realizing what a great way to convey little bites of information and how perfect would this be for sports as a companion to following a live sporting event. At the time, I was actually thinking you might use Twitter to convey the game updates as a way to send, what we call today, push notifications on what was going on in the game, not thinking then that it would actually help you replicate the conversation that occurs around the sporting event. Watching sports is an inherently social proposition. People don’t have viewing parties very often for TV shows, but for any big sporting event, you get together and watch it together with somebody. That’s because it’s a social proposition. You want somebody to bounce your ideas off. What I found as social platforms developed was how fascinating it was to be able to recreate the conversation you would be having if you were at a sports bar or over at a friends house when you’re in your living room. I found myself watching Michigan football games as I do every Saturday having the same conversations with my same group of friends from Michigan, who are now spread all over the country and some in Europe, through Twitter, being able to replicate that same experience minus the greasy food and the hangovers. … What a perfect compliment this is to the sports world, and the of course with apps and the emergence of smartphones and the ability to just have information at your fingertips. … The ability to take that experience with you through smartphones with things like being able to follow social media at the venue and at the event is such a perfect compliment to people’s thirst for information and connection to sporting events. It’s been really amazing to see that grow and come together and see how additive it is to the experience.

MSBC: What have you noticed in terms of traffic patterns?

Levine: We see various trends not only throughout the year, but actually down to the time of day from traffic shifting from device to device as the day goes on, not only what people are consuming, but where they’re consuming it. Overall, traffic is shifting away from broadband and more and more to mobile apps and mobile web. It’s interesting to note the trends of people during the day when they may be at work and checking highlights at lunch. … The evening traffic shifts more to different kinds of content — content surrounding our games and our live game updates — and more toward mobile devices, which are really companion or second screen experiences to either being at a game or watching a game. There are very noteworthy trends in how people consume throughout the day and what they consume.

… Analytics is really the lifeblood of what we do. Understanding how your content is being consumed, by whom it’s being consumed and, over the last several years, on what platforms it’s being consumed, is really critical to having any sort of understanding of what’s going to work and what isn’t. If you don’t pay attention to that, you’re just guessing. We’ve hit on some key strategies by studying analytics of how to program certain kinds of content to make them more consumable based on what we see in analytics. The depth of information that you can get, particularly now that social is in the mix, [like] who they are, where they are and what devices they’re consuming is immense. Within that is an incredible wealth of information that will tell you what’s going to work. However, I don’t believe in programming only by analytics because they’re still some feel and storytelling that goes into what we do.

MSBC: What does NHL.com offer to ensure fans use it as their number one source of information versus competing media outlets like ESPN or CBS Sports?

Levine: We operate out of the league office and we’re very aware that we are attached to the league and that creates a certain perception among the audience on what they will find from us. They don’t necessarily expect to, nor do we necessarily offer, certain kinds of content that may be less critical than you might find on other outlets. But what we do have as our strength is when you see something on our platforms, it comes with the league’s stamp of approval — it’s as official as information can get. Where that serves us best is with information around the game, game data. That’s ours. We own it. If you’re getting game data reports from us, we believe you shouldn’t get a better experience anywhere else. That’s something we own. It’s proprietary to us, so we should be able to do that better than anybody else. When it comes to news, our stance is to be relevant in the conversation that hockey fans are having, but when you see something with us, it’s official. If we say it’s happened, it happened. That’s what comes with being associated with the league’s governing body.

MSBC: Whether as a fan or as a league executive, what is your most memorable hockey moment?

Levine: Wow, there’s a lot of them. I’ve spent a lot of my life around this sport. As a fan, having never seen my favorite pro team win the Stanley Cup, I’d have to say my best fan experience was seeing Michigan win a national championship in person in 1996. I’ve been to the Frozen Four a number of times and left disappointed, but that was an amazing fan experience. As a league employee, it’s just the chance to be around the events and to me, there’s nothing better than standing in the Zamboni entrance during the National Anthem and the build up to the puck drop of a big NHL event when the energy in the building is just ready to explode. I never get tired of doing that wherever we are. … That’s my favorite 10 minutes of the whole three hours.

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