ESPN Wants Back in on NHL TV Rights After Hockey Hiatus

    • The NHL’s $200 million a year deal with NBC expires after the 2020-2021 season.
    • But NBC will fight to keep its deal: ‘We love our partnership with the NHL.’

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ESPN is increasingly interested in bidding for the NHL’s U.S. media rights when the league’s deal with NBC expires following next season, according to sources.

Under NBC’s current $2 billion, 10-year deal for NHL U.S. broadcast and cable TV rights, the network pays $200 million a year. With the deal expiring after the 2020-2021 season, the NHL is looking for a hefty rights increase

However, NBC wants to retain the rights as well. “We love our partnership with the NHL and hope to continue it for a long time to come,” an NBC Sports spokesman said.

The NHL’s upcoming TV negotiations will take place after a sports year like no other. The months-long coronavirus shutdown created a glut of live sports programming, with the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs competing against NFL, NBA, WNBA and MLB games. 

That resulted in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s recent Stanley Cup victory posting disappointing viewership numbers, with the clinching game drawing 2.88 million viewers on NBC. In total, the six-game series averaged 2.03 million viewers, the second-lowest for the league since the 2004-2005 lockout.

However, it was just a year ago that NBC averaged nearly 9 million viewers for its telecast of the St. Louis Blues’ Game 7 win over the Boston Bruins, setting a new high for the most-watched NHL game on record.

Sports media observers believe NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wants to split the league’s TV and digital rights among multiple media partners — like the NFL, NBA, and MLB do — to maximize rights fees.

Even with the NHL looking for a bigger annual payday, ESPN won’t be the only interested bidder.

Fox Sports, inventor of the “glowing puck in the mid-1990s,” may also be interested, sources said. CBS Sports, the first U.S. network to broadcast Canada’s ancestral sport, could also take part in the bidding. Meanwhile, tech giants such as Amazon could be interested in the NHL’s digital rights as they expand into sports.

The NHL, ESPN, and Fox declined to comment for this story. A CBS spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro is intrigued by the NHL rights, said sources. Pitaro already has his foot in the door, with live NHL games streaming on ESPN+. Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky recently joined “Detail,” the ESPN+ sports analysis series created by the late Kobe Bryant.

The network already has a cadre of TV veterans ready and willing to cover the NHL, including new “Monday Night Football” play-by-play announcer Steve Levy, anchors Linda Cohn and John Buccigross, and analyst Barry Melrose. To ESPN and other networks forced to air reruns and “classic” games during the sports shutdown, the pandemic reinforced the value of live game rights. Cohn anchors “In the Crease,” a nightly show on ESPN+ during the NHL season.

ESPN broadcast the NHL from the 1992-1993 season through the 2003-04 season, with the league serving as a major part of the then-nascent ESPN2. ESPN2 even had “NHL 2Night,” a daily studio show.

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 Comcast’s three-year, $200 million offer. 

“We worked very hard to build and sustain our relationship with the league and would have liked to continue,” said George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports at the time. “However, given the prolonged work stoppage and the league’s TV ratings history, no financial model even remotely supports the contract terms offered.”

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When hockey came back for the 2005-06 season, games were carried on Comcast’s Outdoor Life Network, known best for hunting and fishing programming with a fraction of ESPN’s carriage reach. OLN was rebranded Versus and then morphed into NBC Sports Network, steadily adding households over the first decade as the NHL’s exclusive national broadcaster. 

Leaving NBC for greener pastures would be a very tough decision by the NHL. Arguably, no network partner has done more to popularize the league in the U.S.

NBC created the annual outdoor “Winter Classic,” which led to the league’s popular Stadium Series. It also created “Hockey Week in America” and “Thanksgiving Showdown.” Since 2012, NBC networks have nationally televised every single Stanley Cup playoff game.

On the production side, NBC created the “Inside the Glass” ice-level analyst job filled by Pierre McGuire. That innovation has been copied by hockey broadcasters around the world. The network boasts one of the sports TV world’s best big-game announcers: Mike “Doc” Emrick.

When ESPN gave up hockey, a person with knowledge of the negotiations told Front Office Sports the network didn’t want or need it. With the advent of ESPN+ and priority put on sports rights in the years since, that appears to no longer be the case.