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NHL deal with ESPN, Disney takes hockey into the future

TV, streaming platforms will help grow game, give fans more options

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The news should be music to the ears of hockey fans, like the old "NHL on ESPN" theme song.

The NHL will be back on ESPN for the first time since 2004.

The Walt Disney Co., ESPN and the NHL announced a seven-year media rights deal Wednesday that will start next season and run through 2027-28.

But this deal isn't about the past. It's about the future. It's a combination of traditional television and cutting-edge streaming that should help Disney grow its audience, help the NHL grow the game and give fans more options.

"This is a win-win-win," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.

The NHL will still be in places fans expect. The Stanley Cup Final will be on ABC in four of the seven years of the deal. ABC and ESPN will carry one conference final series and half of the first- and second-round games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs each season, plus 25 regular-season games.

(Remember that the remainder of the media rights are to be negotiated, and NBC, in the last year of a 10-year deal as the NHL's current U.S. partner, is in the bidding. This is only part of the picture.)

But ESPN will also produce 75 national games each regular season and stream them on ESPN+ and Hulu, and it will stream more than 1,000 out-of-market games each regular season on ESPN+, replacing NHL.TV.

"Streaming really is at the heart of this deal, and this is a reflection of its role as a critical part of our future," ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro said.

More than that, Pitaro said it will be a model for sports media rights deals. As the late Walter Gretzky once told his son Wayne, "Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been."

Video: Commissioner Bettman, Pitaro on NHL-ESPN deal

Pitaro said when Disney and ESPN looked at the data, the NHL had the largest growth in fandom among the major professional sports leagues since 2005. Viewership among ages 18-48, a critical demographic, was up about 30 percent in 2021, according to his latest numbers. The younger demos were up double digits. These are tech-savvy folks. 

"That's all music to our ears as we look to attracting the younger generation," Pitaro said. "We think NHL content, live games, are going to significantly help us."

ESPN+ already topped 12.1 million subscribers by the end of 2020, and now it's going to have 75 national NHL games each regular season, plus more than 1,000 out-of-market games. Pitaro said ESPN thinks ESPN+ will be a must-have for hockey fans.

"We love the fact that we have a significant number of games," Pitaro said. "This deal really is the first of its kind if you look at the amount of national exclusive inventory that's going to live on a direct-to-consumer platform. This hasn't been done before. And then on top of that, really the jewel, or the centerpiece, is the out-of-market games."

But wait. Those 75 national NHL games each regular season also will be available to Hulu subscription video on-demand customers at no added cost. There are already 39.4 million of them. 

That showcases Hulu for Disney and assures enough oomph for the NHL.

"We wanted to make sure that those games were being widely distributed, and so the combination of ESPN+ and Hulu gives us tremendously broad distribution, approaching the level of some cable services now," Commissioner Bettman said.

Commissioner Bettman said the deal gives the NHL the best of both worlds, but those worlds are changing and will continue to evolve at a rapid pace.

"This reflected the reality of what the media world's looking like now," Commissioner Bettman said. "Everybody knows that there's cord cutting, and everybody knows that these streaming platforms are growing dramatically.

"We think at some point, probably relatively early on in this deal, there's going to be a convergence because of the explosion in the growth [of streaming] and some of the softness [in television] with cord cutting.

"For our fans, this is an opportunity for our younger fans to give them what they want on the places where they go for content."

ESPN's platforms are important places in the sports world. Not only does this deal mean games on ESPN, it means more hockey content on ESPN to support those games and the game as a whole. 

"You'll really see the power of the ESPN megaphone," Pitaro said.

That's music to the NHL's ears.

"I'm well aware of their ability to promote and market and reach more sports fans than anybody else, and I think that is going to continue our growth and was an extraordinarily important part of the attractiveness of us coming together with this partnership," Commissioner Bettman said.

"I think their reach particularly for young people will continue our growth, so we enter into this deal with an expectation together that we're each doing something new. We're going to have a new partner, they're going to have a new property, and together that's going to energize both of us to in effect hopefully make both of us better and let each of us grow our fan bases and our viewership."

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