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Column: The NHL-ESPN deal is one that should work well for all involved

Kings center Anze Kopitar shoots as Ducks defenseman Ben Hutton defends.
Kings center Anze Kopitar, center, shoots as Ducks defenseman Ben Hutton, right, defends during the first period on Monday at Honda Center.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

In the early days of ESPN, when the concept of an all-sports network was laughably dubious and slow-pitch softball, tractor pulls and Australian Rules Football filled gaping holes in programming, the network found a perfect partner in the NHL.

The Hartford Whalers (of blessed memory) were down the road from ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Conn., making for easy production efforts and instant fame for the team’s jazzy goal song, “Brass Bonanza.” The first NHL game aired on ESPN in December of 1979, a little more than three months after the network’s launch. NHL games provided precious live action for ESPN, which was legitimized through its association with an established major sports league. ESPN needed the NHL more than the NHL needed ESPN at that stage of their relationship, and it worked well for both sides.

As ESPN grew and prospered and could afford deals with the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA, it needed the NHL less and less. The NHL wandered through the desert of obscure cable networks—including USA and now-defunct Sportschannel America—and also endured Fox and its glowing puck from 1994-99.

The NHL returned to ESPN in 1992 but was shunted to ESPN2, which wasn’t so widely available. After the lockout-canceled 2004-05 season ESPN had enough leverage to refuse the NHL’s asking price for a renewal of their contract. The NHL took its pucks to Comcast/NBC and has resided there, for better and for worse and for Mike Milbury, since then.

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An altered but intriguing balance of power brought the NHL back to the altar with ESPN, ESPN+ and Hulu to announce a seven-year TV, streaming and media rights deal that will begin next season. ESPN has turned its focus toward streaming and away from traditional TV and cable, though those components will be part of the deal. The NHL has the generally young, tech-savvy audience ESPN craves. ESPN has a monstrously wide reach.

For the NHL, which is negotiating with other networks to take on portions of its rights that it didn’t sell to ESPN, this is a smart, modern marriage. And a lucrative one, a key element for a league that hasn’t been open to full crowds for a full year and relies on attendance for about half of its revenues. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro declined Wednesday to disclose the value of the deal, and Bettman wouldn’t say if it exceeded the $200 million the NHL has gotten annually from NBC. However, Bettman added, “We think we’ve become more valuable over time.”

Unlike their first, long-ago partnership, the NHL will get a bigger boost from being associated with ESPN than the network gets from rejoining forces with a league that has never found the secret to properly marketing its players or its game. If anybody can figure out the promotional end of things it’s ESPN, all grown up into a skillfully self-promoting, multi-media behemoth that spans generations and interests through being owned by the Walt Disney Company.

“This is a transformative time in media, especially in sports media,” Bettman said during a webinar. “Our new partnership harnesses the power of the Walt Disney Company and its multitude of platforms. It puts us on the cutting edge of content distribution, a great linear package with all Stanley Cup Final games in the package on ABC, and a consistent regular-season season schedule as well as a forward-looking strategy focusing on the impact of streaming.

“This is a win-win-win: a win for ESPN and the Walt Disney Company, a win for the NHL and most important, a win for fans. We could not be more thrilled.”

ABC will have exclusive coverage of the Stanley Cup Final in four of the seven years of the deal and will be able to bring in ESPN+ and other ESPN networks. Half of the Stanley Cup playoffs will be aired on ABC and ESPN each season, in addition to special events such as the All-Star game.

Twenty-five regular-season games will air nationally each season on ABC or ESPN, and 75 regular-season games produced by ESPN will stream on ESPN+ and Hulu. Also, the out-of-market streaming package that was on NHL.tv will be available on ESPN+. Pitaro said games on ESPN+ will be part of the base package, though he wouldn’t say if subscription prices will rise. It’s safe to anticipate that they will climb later, if not sooner.

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Pitaro said announcers, analysts, and hosts for NHL games haven’t been determined but he has begun discussions on studio shows that will promote the league and ESPN’s various offerings. “Through this deal you’ll really see the power of the ESPN megaphone,” he said.

What’s in it for ESPN is in the data.

The Kings and Ducks have both climbed well north of rock bottom but remain a good way south of Stanley Cup contention.

“We’ve seen the largest growth in fandom among the major professional leagues since 2005. Viewership in ’21 for the 18-49 demographic is up around 30% in the most recent data that I have, and all younger demos are up double digits. Again, that’s all music to our ears,” Pitaro said. “As we look to attracting the younger generation, we think NHL content, live games, are going to significantly help us, the synergy with digital, the fact that these are early adopters.”

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The Whalers have come back in the form of the retro uniforms worn by their geographical descendants, the Carolina Hurricanes. Why not also enjoy a throwback to the days when the NHL was featured on ESPN — but at a time the network can throw its considerable might behind promoting hockey and can capitalize on the willingness of NHL fans to use streaming and other technology?

“For us, this reflected the reality of what the media world is looking like now,” Bettman said of the trend of cord-cutting in favor of streaming. “This was the best of both worlds. We’re getting the linear exposure that more traditionally we needed and want, and at the same time we’re on the cutting edge of what’s coming with streaming.”

Someone fluff Barry Melrose’s mullet and send him to makeup.


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