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NHL has whole package with Turner, ESPN media rights deals

TV, streaming services will give fans 'as much hockey as they want,' Commissioner Bettman says

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

Now that the NHL has unveiled the whole package of media rights in the United States for the next seven seasons, clearly it has, well, the whole package.

Combine the Turner Sports agreement announced Tuesday and the one with The Walt Disney Co. and ESPN announced March 10, and you have network television, cable TV and streaming. You have two partners with powerful platforms, strong track records and huge incentives to promote the game on the air, online and on social media.

"You've got more national games than ever before," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday. "You've got more extensive coverage than ever before. You're going to be able to get as much hockey as you want, and for us, that's exciting. And coupled with … a fun and innovative approach to covering sports, I think that's going to bring more people into our game."

For the NHL, these agreements represent an increase in U.S. media rights fees and a potential for growth at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everything from the business to the fan experience.

Commissioner Bettman declined to give figures but said, "We think the arrangements we have now are much more reflective of the value that we bring as compelling content." He said he thought they would result in the NHL salary cap, tied to revenues and flat at $81.5 million until revenues recover, would rise sooner than it would have otherwise.

For Turner Sports and ESPN, the NHL represents an important draw for all their platforms even though each has partnerships with other major pro sports leagues.

ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro said March 10 the NHL had the largest growth in fandom among the major pro sports leagues since 2005. Viewership among ages 18-48 was up about 30 percent in 2021. Younger demographics were up double digits.

"Our strategy at Turner has been to be involved with the most premium sports content, and I think we've put together a portfolio that reflects that," WarnerMedia News & Sports chairman Jeff Zucker said Tuesday. "And adding the NHL to that portfolio only enhances Turner Sports."

For hockey fans, as Commissioner Bettman said, "It's more hockey in more places in more ways."

The Stanley Cup Final will alternate between ABC and TNT over the next seven years: on ABC in 2022, 2024, 2026 and 2028, and on TNT in 2023, 2025 and 2027.

ABC and ESPN will televise one conference final series and half of the first-round and second-round games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs each of the next seven seasons. So will TNT and TBS.

ABC and ESPN will televise 25 exclusive regular-season games each season. TNT and TBS will televise 72, including the NHL Winter Classic, the annual outdoor showcase on New Year's Day.

ESPN will produce 75 exclusive national broadcasts each season and stream them on ESPN+ and Hulu, and stream more than 1,000 games each season on ESPN+. Turner Sports plans to stream games on HBO Max, though the details are being determined.

Video: Bettman, Zucker discuss NHL, TNT partnership

All of this reflects the changing media landscape, including not having the Cup Final on network TV three times.

"I am more than comfortable with TNT, which is in 90 million homes, which is almost the equivalent of any broadcast network," Commissioner Bettman said. "And as you look at what is happening to the various platforms for all content, content is being spread [out]. It's not just on linear anymore. There are myriad digital platforms and services."

Zucker pointed out Turner Sports would televise the NCAA men's basketball tournament championship game next year, and ESPN would televise the College Football Playoff championship game.

"I think this is part of the evolution of sports and viewing consumption," Zucker said. "We're confident and excited that the viewers and the consumers will find it wherever it is."

For hardcore fans, casual fans and potential new fans, perhaps this is the best part. 

ESPN and Turner Sports each is well known for excellent coverage and broad reach, from studio shows to websites to social media. Each received highlight rights, the Turner Sports deal including Bleacher Report.

Pitaro said March 10, "You'll really see the power of the ESPN megaphone."

Zucker said Tuesday, "We've got a real firehose, as it were."

NBC has been a great partner for the NHL since 2005-06, from the creation of the Winter Classic in 2008 to the coverage of the League game to game. The network will continue to be through the end of the Cup Final this season. Commissioner Bettman said NBC and the NHL will part on good terms.

But soon the ESPN megaphone and the TNT firehose will be on full blast, and the NHL will head in new directions.

"I think it's the sensibility and the style that we approach our coverage with that we will also bring here," Zucker said. "I think that's been innovative, fun and dynamic. That's widely recognized with our NBA coverage, and so that's what we want to do with the NHL."

"And that's what we're excited about," Commissioner Bettman said. "We're counting on it."

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