Back To The Future: ESPN Finalizing NHL TV/Digital Deal

    • New 7-year deal would enable Walt Disney Co. networks to show 4 Stanley Cup Finals.
    • ESPN televised NHL games from 1992-93 through the 2003-04 season.

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The smartest way for a major sports league to maximize media rights fees is to play multiple networks against each other in negotiations. That’s what the NFL, NBA, and MLB do — and that’s what the NHL is poised to do as well.

NBC Sports, the league’s current U.S. rights holder, is about to have company. The NHL is finalizing a new seven-year broadcast deal with ESPN that will enable Walt Disney Co. networks to televise four Stanley Cup Finals between 2022 and 2028, according to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. The deal could be announced this week.

The agreement includes streaming rights for Disney, wrote Johnston. That means ESPN will use live NHL games to lure loyal hockey fans to its ESPN+ streaming service. 

Similar to the NFL and NBA, ESPN would likely choose to televise the Stanley Cup Finals on sister Disney broadcast network ABC, said sources.

Front Office Sports previously reported ESPN wanted back in on NHL TV rights after getting its foot in the door with ESPN+, which costs $5.99 a month or $59.99 a year.  

Over the past decade, NBC has paid the NHL $200 million a year for exclusive U.S. TV rights. During that award-winning run, NBC created innovations like the popular “Winter Classic” outdoor game.

But NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wants a hefty overall rights increase for the league’s next media rights deal, which begins with the 2021-22 season. The quickest way to achieve that is to split up TV/digital rights among competing bidders.

Sportsnet said ESPN’s pending deal represents only half of the NHL’s U.S. media rights package.

That means NBCUniversal could be finalizing its own deal to retain half of the NHL’s U.S. media rights for its own brands, including the NBC broadcast channel, USA Network and Peacock streaming service.  

Don’t count out other bidders such as former NHL TV partner Fox Sports, inventor of the “glowing puck,” Amazon, which is poised to win the NFL’s “Thursday Night Football,” or CBS Sports. 

The NHL, ESPN and NBC all declined to comment for this story.

The pending deal represents a back-to-the-future moment for ESPN. 

The sports cable network broadcast NHL games from the 1992-93 season through the 2003-04 season. But the NHL lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season. ESPN declined to pick up its option for the 2005-06 season — or to match NBC/Comcast’s bid. 

ESPN has a cadre of hockey TV veterans ready and willing to cover the NHL, including “Monday Night Football” play-by-play announcer Steve Levy, anchors Linda Cohn and John Buccigross, and analyst Barry Melrose. 

This season, ESPN+ will stream 68 NHL games. Cohn and Melrose also anchor “In the Crease,” a nightly show exclusively on ESPN+ during the NHL season. 

During an interview with Front Office Sports, Levy said he’d love to move directly from football season to calling NHL games again.

“Absolutely, bring it on,” Levy said.