Reunited, and it feels so good. The National Hockey League will be back on ESPN in the fall after 16 years as the league and cable net have agreed to a new seven-year TV deal. It’s the latest stint for the NHL on the Disney-owned Worldwide Leader, which aired games at various times during the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s, but not since 2004.
Terms of the deal were not announced, but the parties said in a conference call Wednesday that the NHL owners and the Disney board were “satisfied.”
The news comes as the league’s 10-year pact with NBC Sports is set to expire at the Covid-shortened current season‘s end in late spring or early summer.
The new agreement begins with the upcoming 2021-22 season and includes games on ABC, ESPN, ESPN+ and Hulu. Starting in October — when the league hopes to resume its regular non-virus schedule — 25 regular-season games will air on ESPN or ABC, along with early-round playoff games and one conference final each year. There will be four Stanley Cup Final series on ABC and more than 1,000 games per season streaming on ESPN+.
The deal includes opening-night games, the NHL All-Star Game and Skills Challenge and other special events. The NHL’s out-of-market streaming package (NHL.TV) is also moving to ESPN+ as part of its subscription offerings. ESPN+ and Hulu will be the home to 75 ESPN-produced exclusive telecasts per season.
The pact, which runs through the 2027-28 season, also covers international rights in Latin America, the Caribbean and parts of Europe.
“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,” longtime NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.
Said Jimmy Pitaro, the chairman of ESPN and Sports Content for Disney: “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.”
The announcement of the new deal took a start-stop tack, with an official news release being posted Tuesday night but when taken down. Confirmation came Wednesday afternoon.
The new deal is a huge win for the NHL, which often has struggled to shake its tag as a “regional sport,” though it has expanded into many non-traditional hockey markets in recent decades. The league also has had to deal with the old-time-hockey stigma of fighting, but but the league — and the sport — have evolved in recent years, with today’s young players having grown up focusing more on speed and skill than brawling and checking. That has created a faster, more streamlined game that is likely to play better on TV going forward.
The marketing machine at ESPN in particular also is likely to help the NHL with its longtime trouble spot of promoting its marquee stars in the U.S. Witness what the Worldwide Leader does with the NBA, MLB, even soccer. With no shortage of young American superstars in their prime — think Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Brock Boeser — and many others just coming into their own or a step away from The Show, the NHL seems poised for its American closeup.
And that’s not to mention the such criminally talented young Canadian or European players as Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Leon Draisaitl — all of whom bring crowds to their feet even in opposing arenas.
Another bonus on the deal’s timing: The NHL’s 32nd franchise, the expansion Seattle Kraken, is set to join the league in the fall as a natural rival for the three California teams, the Arizona Coyotes and young franchise the Vegas Golden Knights.
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