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Streamers are Key to NHL Return to Disney

Direct-to-consumer streaming was a key factor in the new agreement to distribute National Hockey League games, including Stanley Cup playoff contests, on The Walt Disney Co. properties.

Both the league and Disney, which has pivoted from traditional media to streaming, called their seven-year pact a template for future deals and said viewers would be looking for games on the kinds of platforms Disney is building.

The NHL Stanley Cup makes an appearance on ESPN's 'SportsCenter'

(Image credit: ESPN)

“I know how passionate and loyal hockey fans can be growing up as a Chicago Blackhawks fan and this agreement is going to allow them to watch their favorite teams like never before on our world-class platforms, including ESPN, ESPN Plus, ABC and Hulu,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek said in a briefing for reporters after the seven-year pact was signed. “We really look forward to giving fans unprecedented access to an incredible lineup of NHL games and programming.”

Some 75 national games per season will stream on direct-to-consumer outlets ESPN Plus and Hulu. ESPN Plus subscribers will also have access to the 1,000 local game telecasts that had been part of the NHL’s out-of-market package.

“This really is a paradigm-shifting deal,” said Jimmy Pitaro, president of ESPN. 

The agreement with the NHL “serves as a model for rights deals of the future,” Pitaro added. “Streaming really is at the heart of this deal and this is a reflection of its role as a critical part of our future.”

ESPN declined to pay a rights fee when its previous deal with the NHL expired in 2005. Hockey is attractive to ESPN now, though, as the sports leader looks to expand its audience to the NHL’s younger, growing fan base. Those fans tend to be tech savvy and are either cord-cutters or cord-nevers.

“ESPN Plus will now be a must-have for hockey fans,” Pitaro said. 

The NHL still has a second package of rights to games to sell. The package isn’t as large and the league will work with potential partners to determine how many games will be televised on linear channels and how many will be streamed, Bettman said. 

Bettman said talks continue on the second rights package and that NBCU continues to express interest even with the Disney deal being finalized.

“Of course they’re under consideration,” Bettman said of Comcast and NBCU. “They’ve been good partners.”