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Big Four Are Sports TV’s Comeback Kids

2020 NHL Western Conference Finals
ESPN’s seven-year NHL rights deal gives ABC the rights to four Stanley Cup Finals. (Image credit: Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

While streaming services such as Amazon Prime Video and ESPN Plus made the most noise from the just-inked National Football League and National Hockey League television rights deals, broadcast networks also scored valuable live content under the long-term pacts. 

The Big Four broadcasters — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC, considered long
past their prime as major live-sports distributors — retained their status as the pre-eminent outlets for NFL regular season and playoff games, including the Super Bowl. And ABC leveraged its corporate Disney connection to ESPN to add Monday Night Football doubleheaders and a pair of Super Bowls, as well as four Stanley Cup Finals over its seven-year deal with the NHL. 

Amazon in Primetime

Amazon Prime Video garnered headlines when it snagged the Thursday Night Football package away from Fox starting in 2023 as part of the new 11-year NFL TV deal, which also ends the simulcasts on NFL Network. Fox and CBS will continue to offer the lion’s share of regular-season Sunday afternoon NFL games and NBC will keep TV’s most-watched series, Sunday Night Football. ABC will join the three networks in rotating the Super Bowl telecasts — typically the most-watched TV program of the year — through 2031.

CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said that the broadcast network remains the key component of its NFL distribution strategy even as the network’s telecasts will also be simulcast on Paramount Plus. “The NFL will really be a driver of value and a driver of audience on our linear networks, on our digital networks and our streaming networks,” McManus said in a keynote speech at the NATPE Virtual Business of Live Sports TV conference March 23. 

Along with two Super Bowl telecasts, ABC also picks up three annual Monday Night Football telecasts as well as two late-season Saturday afternoon simulcast games with ESPN. ABC is a major component of ESPN’s overall NFL television strategy, NFL Media executive VP and chief operating officer Hans Schroeder said during ESPN’s March 18 conference call on the NFL deal. “When you think about … ABC coming back into the partnership for a number of exclusive games and also playoffs and Super Bowl, you think about the opportunities to leverage the different traditional channels and outlets ESPN and the Disney family have,” Schroeder said.

ABC also skated away with additional live sports content from Disney’s new TV deal with the NHL. ABC will have exclusive coverage of the Stanley Cup Finals for four years of the overall seven-year agreement. The broadcast network will also share 25 exclusive, national regular-season games with ESPN, as well as live exclusive coverage of one Conference Finals series and half of all first-round and second-
round games from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

The NHL, now in the final year of an exclusive U.S. arrangement with NBC Sports Group, is still seeking a second TV partner. 

ABC Back on the Grid

With broadcast networks and their affiliated stations looking for high-profile content to lead into its advertiser-attractive local news segments, sports analyst Lee Berke said ABC’s addition of the Super Bowl and Stanley Cup telecasts — as well as NFL Monday Night Football games and NHL regular and postseason games — will pay dividends for the broadcast network well into the decade. 

“ABC up to this point has been a laggard in offering sports to drive viewers to local news — all they really had was the NBA and college football — as the bulk of their sports programming moved over to ESPN,” he said. “Now, along with SEC college football, they will have the Stanley Cup finals every other year, Monday Night Football and placement in the Super Bowl rotation to go along with the NBA Finals. 

“When put in context, you’re now looking at 60 to 80 marquee sports events a year on ABC,” he said. “They have really bulked up.”