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Games On (Starting Next Season)

NHL and ESPN agree on an unprecedented, cross-platform media rights deal. Expect a a fan feast of games and hockey program across broadcast networks, cable TV and streaming platforms

by Bob Condor / @SeattleKraken /

The NHL returns to ESPN

A new era is here: The NHL returns to ESPN

The Walt Disney Company, ESPN, and the NHL have reached a historic and innovative seven-year television, streaming, and media rights deal

  • 01:05 •

Big news for hockey fans Wednesday: The NHL and dominant sports network ESPN officially announced a seven-year rights deal for showing games in the U.S. across traditional broadcast TV (ABC), cable (ESPN) and streaming platforms (ESPN+ and Hulu).

The agreement represents both a nostalgic reunion and a brave new future in how major sports leagues will structure rights deals. ESPN last carried NHL games during the 2003-04 season, which happens to be the final year of the 23-season Hall of Fame career of Kraken general manager Ron Francis. Fittingly enough, ESPN and ABC will begin airing games this fall for the Kraken's inaugural 2021-22 season.

Seventeen years later, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro were explaining the new agreement is nothing short of groundbreaking and what Bettman called "win-win-win" for the league, Disney-owned ESPN and fans.

"It really is a paradigm-shifting deal," said Pitaro, who also serves a chairman of sports content for Disney. "Our agreement will serve at the model for all sports rights deals in the future because of its cross-platform capabilities and reach. Streaming really is at the heart of this deal."

Bettman acknowledged the growing number of "cord-cutters" (fans discontinuing or never starting subscriptions to cable television) necessitated innovative thinking about how to "give younger fans what they want" and maintaining "linear exposure" on the ABC and ESPN networks. The commissioner said he believes the new agreement is "the best of both worlds." 

Here are the impressive and fan-feast details:

  • There will be 25 regular-season games on ESPN or ABC for seven seasons, starting this fall. Bettman noted it will be a "consistent schedule" so fans can plan on what days/nights games will be aired.
  • ESPN will have rights to early-round playoff series and one conference final each year.
  • Four Stanley Cup Final series during the seven-year deal will air on ABC.
  • The unprecedented feature of the deal is the ESPN+ and Hulu apps will be the exclusive carriers of 75 ESPN-produced regular-season game telecasts per season.
  • The deal includes opening-night games, the NHL All-Star Game and Skills Challenge and other special events.
  • International rights in Latin America, the Caribbean and parts of Europe are part of the deal, as are extensive highlight rights for ESPN's digital platforms.
  • More than 1,000 additional games per season will stream on ESPN+. These games represent "out-of-market" access for fans who are traveling or don't live in the broadcast region of their favorite teams.

This last deal feature effectively moves league's current out-of-market streaming package (NHL.TV) to ESPN+ as part of its subscription offerings. Pitaro said the overall package of NHL live games turns ESPN+ into a "must-have" for hockey fans and called it "great value" for fans who already subscribe to Hulu. Bettman noted Hulu (39.4 million subscribers) and ESPN+ (12 million) "approaches [the audiences of] cable services" even before an anticipated millions more hockey fans subscribe for the upcoming season.

Pitaro was vocal about Disney/ESPN data indicating the attractive demographics of NHL fans, who skew younger and more tech-savvy than the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball. When he joined Disney three years ago, Pitaro said getting NHL rights back was a top priority. Fans can expect significantly more NHL programming not only next season but for the remainder of the 2020-21 regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The NHL and NBC are finishing out a 10-year, $2 billion rights deal this season. Bettman said the ESPN deal took precedence due to the streaming capabilities for ESPN+ and Hulu, but that league leadership will now consider a second, complementary rights deal with NBC and other interested parties, which media reports identify as Fox and CBS.

The ESPN agreement is an encouraging sign for NHL owners and players, considering the revenue losses and salary reductions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. While Pitaro declined comment about deal value and Bettman only added "we think we've become more valuable over time," both leaders said the Disney and ESPN boards plus the NHL Board of Governors (unanimous approval for the latter) enthusiastically endorsed the agreement. The Athletic's sports business writer Sean Shapiro reported that sources told him the annual rights fee to the NHL is more than $400 million or approximately $2.8 billion over seven years.

"We're each doing something new," said Bettman. "We have a new partner and ESPN has a new sport to cover. We all know ESPN's [coverage] capabilities and we're well aware of its promotional reach. Together I think we can energize the sport and continue to grow our game."

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