The NHL goes big on GoPro

January 23, 2015, 3:00 PM UTC
Photograph by Andrew Burton — Getty Images

When Apple was awarded a new patent last week for a wearable camera, it was seen as very bad news for GoPro. The camera, presumably, will directly compete with GoPro’s product. And indeed, the news caused shares of GoPro, which went public in June, to fall below $50, to their lowest price in four months.

Interviewed by Fortune editor Alan Murray this month at CES in Las Vegas, GoPro CEO Nick Woodman (no. 12 on our 2014 40 Under 40 list) said that his company would withstand potential competition from Apple thanks to its brand: “Can you imagine people sharing their Apple videos? Like, ‘My epic Apple ski weekend.’ Or, when was the last time you saw someone share another branded Company X, Y, Z video? You’re only seeing people share GoPro videos. Because that’s what the brand GoPro is known for.”

An additional competitive advantage is now underway in earnest: infiltrating live televised sports. (Apple does not have a sponsorship deal with any of the four major sports.) GoPro (GPRO) is already known for being the item that outdoor athletes—think snowboarders, skateboarders, and bikers—strap to their heads in order to capture exciting footage and share it on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. GoPro’s next move is to deliver the same kind of footage to fans of live sports. And it will start with hockey.

Today, GoPro announced a long-term partnership with the National Hockey League that will result in the league using GoPro cameras—potentially on referee helmets and in the rink—and integrating them into live broadcasts of NHL games. The NHL and GoPro already worked together back in September on a shoot at which some referees wore GoPro cameras, but it was only for promotional footage, not regular season games.

The company is announcing the deal in time for the upcoming NHL All-Star Weekend, where cameras will be on some refs and on the inside of the rink for the Skills Competition. During the season, the NHL and NHLPA can now outfit refs with the cameras, and game broadcasts will have the option to cut over to them for new points of view. Earlier this month, GoPro announced a new partnership with Vislink to deliver wireless HD footage for live broadcasts (GoPro is calling this its Professional Broadcast Solution) and the Skills Competition will be the debut of this technology.

For now, this NHL agreement does not yet involve players wearing GoPros during games, though some will wear them this weekend during the Skills Competition as a test run. GoPro is holding off on that element, out of respect for player safety and comfort. “We’d sure love that, but it’s a sensitive topic,” says marketing VP Paul Crandell. “The most important thing is that we don’t invade their normal routine. We don’t want it to prohibit any performance.”

Considering that GoPro is so closely associated with sports, it may come as a surprise that this is the company’s first official partnership with any professional sports league, outside of the X Games. Its strategy of adding more mainstream sports, after making its name in extreme sports, is now clear. “This gets us into the mass-reaching sports and shows GoPro is effective in stick-and-ball sports, too,” says Crandell, “beyond just action-adventure sports.” In other words, expect to see GoPro cameras in other leagues soon—maybe on NFL endzone goalposts, as a kick sails through the uprights, or behind NBA backboards, to show fans an up-close view of a great dunk.

As for whether the cameras can be worn by players even in sports without helmets? Some day, the company hopes. “The other solutions for live cameras are bulky, big, there’d be no way to attach it to any kind of athlete,” says Crandell. “We’ve really gotten the form factor down to something that is… eventually wearable.”

GoPro is describing this NHL partnership as a “proving ground” for what the camera can do not just in replay footage, but for live shots. For the NHL, it’s an opportunity to be connected to a buzzy tech company, and to show some flash. The GoPro cameras, according to NHL SVP of programming Bob Chesterman, will, “showcase the beauty and intensity of hockey in new and deeper ways.” Of course, if hockey fans don’t find the new GoPro footage particularly compelling, watch for them to fade from the rink.

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