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NHL Deal With Disney Puts Hockey Back On ESPN

James Murphy
by in NHL on
  • The National Hockey League has signed a seven year broadcast deal with the Walt Disney Company worth a reported $2.8 billion USD.
  • The deal will put the NHL back on ESPN for the first time since 2004.
  • The NHL’s out-of-market game package (NHL.TV) will be available only via a subscription to the ESPN+ streaming network.

When NBCUniversal announced that they were closing down the NBCSN sports network the assumption was that many of their properties would end up on the Peacock streaming network. In fact, that was the primary impetus for the shutdown as well as a big licensing deal with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). A secondary motivation was to beef up the programming lineup on the USA Network–the rationale being that more sports on the USA Network would make it more valuable to cable and satellite companies.

The English Premier League coverage in the US is moving to Peacock but otherwise the plan hasn’t worked out quite as cleanly as NBCUniversal had hoped. NASCAR President Steve Phelps publicly indicated that he wouldn’t support having races exclusively on the streaming platform though he has no issue with the USA Network:

“If it’s USA Network, that’s a potential. And it is big enough — USA Network actually has six million additional homes than does NBCSN. Again, nothing has been decided.”

“Do I think we’ll find a great place for our racing with NBC? I do. I don’t see us being pushed over to Peacock; that’s not something that we would want to do, at least as it relates to the races themselves.”

Earlier this week, NBCUniversal got hit with an even bigger setback–the National Hockey League was expected to be a staple on Peacock and the USA Network but it won’t be seen on either platform. On Wednesday, the NHL and the Walt Disney Company announced a 7 year broadcast deal worth a reported $2.8 billion USD or $400 million USD per year. The deal includes 75 exclusive games per year to stream live on ESPN+ and Hulu, 25 regular season games per year on ESPN or ABC and provisions for the playoffs, opening night games and the All Star Game. The NHL’s streaming package–NHL.TV–is moving to ESPN+ meaning that it just picked up thousands of pro hockey games to add to their content menu.

International rights in Latin America, the Caribbean and parts of Europe are also part of the deal as well as extensive highlight rights for ESPN’s digital platforms.

Jimmy Pitaro, the chairman of ESPN and sports content for Disney, sounded more excited about adding some high profile content to the ESPN+ streaming menu than he did about the return of hockey to the network for the first time since 2004:

“This agreement clearly underscores The Walt Disney Company’s leadership in the sports media landscape and serves as a blueprint for sports deals in the future. We know the power of the NHL and are thrilled to welcome it back as a significant new pillar across our platforms, and we look forward to connecting more deeply and directly with some of the sports world’s most passionate fans.”

Pitaro further extemporized on the significance on the streaming component to the NHL website:

“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+ will now be a must-have for hockey fans. And as we’re already seeing on social, this deal is going to make a lot of people happy, including a lot of ESPN employees who are incredibly passionate about the NHL and are very excited to dig in. … We’re excited to be back and to be back in such a big way.”

NHL.com also got a quote from the big guy himself–Bob Chapek, CEO of the Walt Disney Company who talked about the passion of hockey fans. Turns out he grew up a Blackhawks fan:

“We really look forward to giving fans unprecedented access to an incredible lineup of NHL games and programming. I know how passionate and loyal hockey fans can be growing up as a Chicago Blackhawks fan, and this agreement is going to allow them to watch their favorite teams like never before on our world-class platforms, including ESPN, ESPN+, ABC and Hulu. So we’re really excited about this new partnership and the value that it represents not only to Disney but the League and sports fans around the world.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is obviously thrilled to have hockey gain significantly wider exposure while picking up a couple of billion dollars in the process. ESPN+ currently has more than 12 million subscribers and Hulu has 39.4 million:

“Not only will this groundbreaking, seven-year deal enable the NHL to benefit from the incomparable power, reach and influence of The Walt Disney Company and ABC/ESPN, it sets a new standard in delivering our game to the most passionate and tech-savvy fans in sports in the ways they now demand and on the platforms they use.”

NBC or its cable platforms have been the NHL’s broadcast home for the past 14 years. This will mark the return of hockey to ESPN where the NHL has a long history:

The first NHL game on ESPN appeared on Dec. 19, 1979 — a little more than three months after the network premiered. ESPN continued to produce NHL content for the next nine years. After a hiatus, the network became the home for the NHL from 1992 to 2004.

The agreement will begin with the 2021-2022 season. NBC and the USA Network might not entirely be shut out as the deal with Disney isn’t entirely exclusive–though for streaming it is. NHL.com indicated that a number of entities have shown interest in the remaining TV broadcast rights including NBCUniversal who Commissioner Bettman said have been a good broadcast partner:

“They’ve been good partners, and as we move forward we’re going to continue our dialogue with them and see if we can get it all together and continue what has been a very productive relationship for both of us.”

Bettman characterized the deal as a ‘win-win-win’ as it benefits Disney/ESPN, the NHL and hockey fans. He also spoke of Disney’s effectiveness at packaging and marketing the pro hockey product.

Here’s a 1987 NHL on ESPN report on hockey dynasties:

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