Sources: Fox Sports Shows Interest in Bidding for NHL

    • NBC still aims to retain NHL rights even as it shutters NBCSN.
    • ESPN also expected to enter bidding for U.S. NHL rights that expire at season's send.

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With or without the glowing puck, Fox Sports is interested in broadcasting NHL games again, sources tell Front Office Sports.

Fox Sports joins ESPN and NBC — which is in the final season of an exclusive decade-long, $2 billion deal — as potential bidders for the next U.S. broadcast rights package. Even though NBC announced it was shutting down NBC Sports Network, insiders believe the network will  retain a major share of the NHL broadcast package with games on NBC, USA and Peacock.

In that scenario, Fox or ESPN would bid to broadcast a smaller slate of games. Front Office Sports reported in October that ESPN was interested in bidding for the U.S. rights. That potential package would likely run 20-30 regular-season games along with a piece of the playoffs.

“Fox could view this as a strategic play,” former Fox Sports executive Patrick Crakes said. “If they do that, maybe they can let something else go in the future. The NHL fits a specific niche for them.”

NBC pays $200 million a year to broadcast NHL on cable TV deal. That’s roughly one-fifth of the $950 million NBC pays annually for “Sunday Night Football.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is personally leading the rights negotiations, said sources. He’s looking for a hefty rights increase. Privately, many NHL executives believe their media rights are undervalued compared to the NFL, NBA and MLB. 

Bettman’s a notoriously tough negotiator. With Fox and ESPN bidding against NBC, plus digital giants like Amazon and Google waiting in the wings, he’s poised to deliver a windfall for his league.

The NHL declined to comment. Ditto for Fox and ESPN. Back in October, an NBC spokesman confirmed to FOS the network wants to maintain its partnership with the NHL.  

NBC hasn’t indicated a desire to share the NHL package that it’s ownedsince the 2005-06 season after that league’slengthy run on ESPN. Games were originally shown on NBC along with OLN, a channel that morphed into Versus and then NBC Sports Net.

“I think the NHL will want to stay with NBC, but the league would be open to giving another network at least 20 games,” Crakes said. “The best candidate would be Fox for those games if it happens.”

There remains the possibility that NBC will seek to keep the NHL all to itself —pitching the league on its reach with NBC, USA — which is more homes than NBC Sports Net ever penetrated — and Peacock, which  has around 26 million subscribers and landed the WWE’s exclusive streaming rights this week. 

NBC has the right to match any offer for the entire package. But the NHL’s incumbent network is likely to face a strong challenge from Fox, as it muscles its way into rights negotiations.

Fox would air some live NHL games on its so-called “big Fox” broadcast network. But the network sports giant believes NHL games would boost viewership for its seven-year-old FS1 cable network. Besides replays of morning studio shows like Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe’s “Undisputed” and “The Herd with Colin Cowherd,” FS1 mostly airs college sports games. Adding the NHL would give FS1 a marquee Big 5 pro league to build its schedule around.  

“Hockey would be a volume play for FS1: they need something [to air] live overnight,” said one source. “Their morning show numbers are not good. They’re convinced it’s because they don’t have enough live programming. Right now, FS1 has college sports and nothing else.” 

Meanwhile, ESPN has a cadre of announcers and analysts who’ve called the NHL, ranging from “Monday Night Football” announcer Steve Levy to Linda Cohn and John Buccigross. The NHL would be a perfect fit for ESPN+ as the streaming service builds up its exclusive programming.

ESPN+ will stream 68 NHL games during the first two months of the 2020-21 season. The defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning will make six appearances during that stretch. ESPN+ is bringing back its daily NHL show, “In The Crease,” with Cohn and Barry Melrose. The network has also added respected NHL writers Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski.

Fox last televised the NHL from 1994-1999, experimenting with innovations such as a “glowing” puck. ESPN showed NHL games from 2004. NBC has been widely praised for its NHL coverage, creating the popular outdoor “Winter Classic” game.