Sometimes there are happy coincidences in life. Steve Mayer walking into a U2 concert at Sphere in Las Vegas just may result in the most spectacular NHL Draft.

Certainly those NHL custodians who gathered at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel for the league’s first ever draft back in 1963 never imagined what is about to unfold in Vegas.

“I went to U2 opening night. We had talked about where we were going to do the Draft. We didn't arrive at a place, went to U2, came back to Commissioner Bettman said, like, “heck, we've got to do it here. How cool would that be?

“Gary [Bettman] reached out to (Sphere, MSG and New York Rangers owner) Jim Dolan. They met a bunch of times and eventually worked out an agreement. As you can imagine, this is unique and it was right at the very, very beginning. So I don't think they had a blueprint for costs and availability and all of the above. And then we just went to work. Like we decided pretty quickly that this was the place that we wanted to do it. We just thought it would be so unique. And listen, not lying to you. We really love being first in, and that was that was a huge factor here to be the first sports event in the building. And again, they've been incredible to work with. I think they're as excited as we are as they look to branch out and do other events and, not only entertainment or concerts, they want to do sports as well. We were happy to be sort of the test study.

"And so with every little piece of this, we’ve been working hand in hand. It came out of going to U2 and I was in awe. You know me, I love big events, and I love to go to big events and I'm not very easily impressed. And I hate that about my life. Because, you know, you get to see some really cool things. This totally blew my mind. It was like “holy you know what.” I’ve never seen anything like this. And at this stage in my life, I knew my team, who's the best in the business, was going to react the same way as I would. This is a cool challenge and creatively, it’s a blank canvas that happens to be the biggest canvas that we’ve ever worked on. And so off we’re going! It’s been awesome."

Some people talk out of the box. Mayer, NHL chief content officer, lives in the spaces others haven’t thought to travel or are afraid to do so.

The NHL has announced this will be the last in-person draft for teams. Next year, teams will be stationed at their home offices and selections will be remotely called in.

So this is the last draft of its kind. And the NHL wants to make a splash. Click here to purchase tickets to the 2024 NHL Draft.

Mayer took time out of his busy schedule to give us half an hour and here’s a portion of that conversation.

Gary Lawless: How will this draft be different from others?
Steve Mayer: I just think it's all about the Sphere and the venue. And that is what essentially will be the difference between this one and all others. The floor will feel a little different, but the same. We're keeping the tables on the floor. There are some staging differences, which are subtle. But we're really playing into what they call the “media plane,” which is the largest screen in the world. And we're going to lean in to make this extremely unique and an incredible experience. And for us, being the first live sports event in that venue is special.

Lawless: Did you call it the media plane?
Mayer: Media plane. That's what they call the big screen inside. The exosphere, E X O sphere. That's how you refer to the outside of the venue.

Lawless: U2’s residency at Sphere is really how a lot of people know about the venue. They took advantage of the media plane in simple ways by just showing the band. If you were in the 300 level and they put the band on the media plane, it was like you were in the front row. This is different than a jumbotron.
Mayer: Yes, it is. But you can do things that U2 did, for example, the band on the plane is larger than life. It gives you the feeling like, whoa, you're right there. And we're going to do the same, whether it's showing the picks being announced, showing players walking up to the stage.

We're going to put the picks up there as they're selected. We're going to show kids after they're drafted, their walk to the stage. We're going to show the event in some extremely unique manners which have never been done before. The interface of live graphics and statistics that will immediately come up in that manner, larger than life. You know, everything's happening live. With U2, every single inch of their production was pre-produced. But for us, all of this is happening as it's happening. And there is a level of background and really cool elements that we think are going to be like the viral moments. But we also think people are going to be blown away when we put stats of players up there, when we show the player who just got drafted in his new uniform up there. Like there are things that we're going to do that are just immediate, but because of how big it is, will be impactful.

And, you know, I think we're learning so much about the Sphere and how it operates, but they're also going to school on us because we're doing a live event and the elements that we would need or use are quite different than what they would do for a concert.

Lawless: Who is going to call the show? Have you hired a production company to come in? I'm visualizing a truck for lack of a better term calling it with a director or producer like a hockey game.
Mayer: Yeah, we do have that. We have our own team that we were bringing in, but it's not really a company. It's individuals. And we, the NHL, are going to be highly influential in some of the decisions that are made that day, given a lot of our backgrounds, including my own. And so, calling the show will be a combination of folks, including myself. And we are, to your point, we have a separate truck that not only is going to call what's going on the screens. But in our mind, you know, it's not a sports show.

In past years, we've always regarded the Draft as another sports broadcast. In this one, we're sort of taking the entertainment approach. You know, if we put something on that screen that's impactful and incredible, it's got to get shown on TV as well.

If it doesn't get shown. Yeah, it's great for those who are attending and they're going to get the show of their life, but we need to translate to the home audience. It's very important for us. And we've been working really hard on that piece. And to your point about show calling, when we call for a certain piece of video, we need to see it. And so you also have new cameras. You know, we're doing a lot based on the size and the scope. And we're going to have drones flying.

We just got a lot of toys that we're going to use, but use them not only for effect but to show the grand scope of what we're producing.

Lawless: How many rehearsals will there be and when will they start?
Mayer: So, we're going in starting early June and starting to load material in. And a lot of our rehearsals will be based on what's going on the screen. We're rehearsing on and off all the way until the whole crew comes in the week of. The rehearsal time is actually limited because we are actually working around some of the events that are going to go on in the Sphere and continue. We know that. We're going to be doing some crazy hours overnight. And we understood that from the beginning. That was part of the condition of getting the Sphere. The team from Madison Square Garden, from Big Dome production. There are all these people that we've been working with, they're awesome. And they're just going to squeeze every single second out of the venue so that we can prepare and rehearse. But it's different. Like, I'm not going to sit here and go, “we got the secret.” We went yesterday, for instance, I was in Los Angeles, and they have a mini-Sphere in Burbank, California.

Yesterday was the first time we actually saw content in the mini-Sphere and you approve everything in that environment. It's like a one quarter version of the Sphere and you look at it and then you make tweaks based on what you see there before it ever gets to the Las Vegas Sphere. And that's going to be a process where we end up doing that two or three times before we finally release the materials to get to Las Vegas. So we did our first viewing yesterday. It was pretty cool.

Lawless: Early on, when U2 would do something in the Sphere, Bono would say “that works, keep that. We'll do that again.” And that went on for like a 10-day to 14-day period where they kind of tinkered before they landed on what worked for them. You don't have that luxury. You got one crack.
Mayer: You know, we don't have the luxury, but we do have the luxury, meaning we've been working on this now for six months, maybe. And we've seen still versions of the content, moving versions of the content. We all have our VR glasses. We can watch the content in that form. I mean, yes, you're right. We're not we're not necessarily seeing it at the Sphere, but we are seeing it in other forms. And believe me, yesterday, we were laughing.

We looked at one piece of content and the guy was like, “hey, which one am I pulling up?” And the guy goes “version 25.” And we were like, “oh, my God, we're already on 25 with this.” And we were. So we've been tweaking things and we'll continue to. Yesterday, we blew some things up. We talked about colors and things that weren't in a particular piece and how can we add. Each piece is being looked at with a fine-toothed comb.

And then there's another layer that are these other graphics that we’re bringing in that the Sphere actually couldn't accommodate. So we had to get some really smart people. We hired a guy named Matt McAdam, who runs the screens for all these major TV shows, including American Idol. And so he's been working with us. And he's the one that sort of developed this other system of taking and overlaying what we already have in a live manner so that we can have the draft board, and when a kid gets drafted. We've got a whole sequence of things that are going to happen on the screen that are like a kid who was two seconds ago playing junior hockey and now plays for the Detroit Red Wings. You'll see that transition happen on the screens. Some of those things that will be really cool.

Lawless: Will there be a physical draft board and a digital one or will it just be digital?
Mayer: It's all digital. The other element which we haven't even talked about is the outside. We’re using the outside as a production element.

Lawless: How do you balance the creative urges you’re going to have and the opportunities that you're going to have with the needs of this. This is a business event as well, right? This is hockey ops. How do you balance that?
Mayer: Well, listen, we understand the core. It’s the same thing I always say about outdoor games. We can do everything on the fringe. We put these ancillary events on, we try to make them big, but we're never going to mess with what's going on that ice. And the same thing here, the picks will happen in the same timely manner they always happen. They'll be made by the same people that always make them. We're not upsetting that apple cart at all, but we're going to take everything around it and make it feel and look a bit different. And hopefully get attention on an event that frankly, you know, gets attention with our little world and everybody's been fine with that. Our goal here is to have the sports world talking about this event and, admittedly having moments that just go viral. I mean, you see it, everything out of that building not only gets seen by the people that come to that building, 17,000 people but gets five million hits, four million hits on social media. And for us, I hate to say it, that's the goal.

You know, you want to create those viral moments that people talk about and we think we're going to have a few of those. But it still is the business of the Draft and we understand how meaningful it is for the kids, and the teams. I mean, obviously it could change so much. Nothing's changing in that manner. Nothing. But it's just going to, we're putting a little more sprinkles on the cake, as they say.

Lawless: I'm going to put two questions together. For a player being drafted, why will this experience be unique? And if you were speaking to a draft-eligible player, would you recommend you come to this draft, and why? You can answer all that in one answer.
Mayer: Have you ever seen yourself 100 feet tall? You know, listen, I think for those who will get drafted, the whole experience from the time their name gets announced, which by the way, won't only be in the venue, it'll be outside the venue on the exosphere. So we're going to pipe every one of those announcements outside. And so that's the moment that that person will have forever. To that walk up to the stage, which as you remember in past years, they walk sort of that, a little bit from the stands on to the stage and it says, “Welcome to the NHL.” This time, they're just going to look up right in front of them and that screen is going to have their action shot and headshot as big as can be. And the stats are going to come in front of them and the uniform of their new team with their name on the back of the uniform is going to be as big as life. And there's going to be just things that'll be just like, whoa, you know? It’ll be really impactful, very memorable, and uniquely different. And I just think the whole experience is just going to be a wow. This would be a cool year to get drafted but ultimately, they're going to end up on some team that could be their destination for the rest of their life. All the same things that happen every time, but there'll be some memories and some video that they could show their grandkids someday to say I got drafted at the Sphere.

Lawless: Tell me about the exosphere.
Mayer: So, the exosphere is also very unique. So, for the first time ever, we are going to broadcast live from inside the building to outside the building. And, we actually yesterday saw some examples of it. It could be spectacular. So every time somebody steps up to the mic to make the pick, we're going to actually put that on the exosphere and that could be part of the broadcast. Not every time but as part of the broadcast but every time somebody does that. We will be able to show the draft board on the exosphere. The next teams on the clock we're going to use it as a bumper element for the television show. So every time we go to a break will go outside and some element will be on the exosphere that will either signal who's coming up next in the draft or, players that just got drafted. We're going to be able to do a lot of live and produced video from that day on the exosphere. Again, never been done before. We’re the ones that are experimenting with it and we are the ones that sort of said, here's what we'd like to do, and to the credit of those who are way smarter than me. Holy smokes they came up with this technology and it's amazing. So we're excited about that piece. And by the way, we know we're doing this at four o'clock in the afternoon. They have a computer program that literally puts the sun exactly where it is at different parts of the day so you could see what the Sphere outside is going to look like at that exact period so you know how to position the video and where to shoot it from. It's incredible.

Lawless: What are the details of what the experience will be like for fans watching on TV? That's a challenge for you, right? To have the show there is going to be one thing, but you got to make it happen on TV as well.
Mayer: Yeah, I don't want to go too hard on this, but I think we fail if people watching at home don't clearly understand they're watching this in the Sphere. You need to have this visual moment to understand where we're doing it and the size and the scope of it all. And you can have the other things as well.

Lawless: If you were a hockey fan living in Las Vegas or anywhere, would you go to the draft? Why?
Mayer: Yeah, if you're a hockey fan or you're a sports fan or you're an entertainment fan, I think we're going to put on a show. I think it's going to be really unique and different. And I know the passion that the Vegas Golden Knights fans have for hockey and they come out in numbers. They've supported our award shows in the past and obviously they've got their team, but this is going to be cool. You’re going to see the future of the game.

There’s a lot of players, you might not know them when you walk in that door, but you'll know them in a few years from now. And, I just think this is going to show Vegas off. It's another “wow” to the world that Las Vegas is unique and different and does things bigger than anybody. And we're just proud that we're able to do it and take advantage of it over and over and over again. We're doing our award show in Vegas. I mean, there's no coincidence here. Everybody in that city just knows how to do things big. And we love it and I think the fans are going to really enjoy this.

Lawless: How are you not going to have it at the Sphere next year?
Mayer: So I think that's a question to ask, not me, but others, because we've said internally, this is the last year, at least right now, it's scheduled to be the last year of an in-person draft for the teams. We’ll always do a draft with the players. And we're, reverting back to the NFL and NBA model.

I wonder after this, what the response will be, and whether or not there'll be a bunch of people rethinking the decision to change. And I might be wrong. But put it this way, this gives the old version, the best chance to survive. I mean, I do think it was getting a bit stale in the arenas. And one arena looks like the next arena looks like the next arena when it comes to the drafts. This is going to be just so different. So, we'll see whether this is the last of the in-person for the teams. But I think they're going to be impressed. I do.

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