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Digital Sportsplay: Disney’s NHL Postseason Coverage Skates on Multiple Platforms

NHL -- Carolina Hurricanes-San Jose Sharks

(Image credit: ESPN)

ESPN on Monday (May 2) will drop the puck on coverage of its first Stanley Cup Playoffs under parent The Walt Disney Co.’s new seven-year deal with the National Hockey League, featuring 12 playoff games airing on ESPN and ESPN2 over the next three nights. 

All of Disney’s playoff telecasts will air on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, with Warner Bros. Discovery’s TNT and TBS also airing games. On the digital front, ESPN Plus will feature replay coverage of every playoff game and will simulcast all Disney-distributed NHL conference finals and Stanley Cup Finals games live.

Disney will look to build on its regular-season ratings momentum. ESPN and ABC averaged 616,000 viewers across a slate of 26 game telecasts. That’s up from the 391,000 viewers previous rightsholders NBC and NBCSN averaged during the 2021-22 season, according to Sports Business Journal. 

ESPN senior VP of programming and acquisitions Ilan Ben-Hanan spoke to Multichannel News about the network’s multiplatform Stanley Cup Playoffs strategy. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.

MCN: Do you feel you're sufficiently serving the hockey fan with your multiplatform approach? 

Ilan Ben-Hanan: I think that we have both qualitative and quantitative data to kind of back that up. Beyond the [linear] ratings, we saw increases in our female demos for our hockey coverage year-over-year from our previous partners, and we saw insane growth in our hockey content consumed on ESPN.com. To be completely transparent, some of that comes with being the rightsholder and having expansive rights in that space. But getting those rights is one thing, using them is another and making sure fans know to come and engage with it is quite another. Going into the playoffs, we’re going to make [ESPN2 weekly NHL studio show] The Point a daily series. We recently launched other shows like The Drop on social platforms YouTube and Twitter, and we launched an NHL TikTok page, which is another prong in our strategy of serving hockey fans where they are. 

MCN: How will your playoff coverage differ from what viewers saw during the regular season? 

IBH: Starting Monday with the NHL Playoffs and the NBA playoffs happening simultaneously — and with ESPN and the Turner Sports networks holding rights to both — it’s almost going to be a square dance for us. Every night if we’re going big with hockey, Turner’s going big with the NBA, and vice versa. If you're a sports fan, you'll be able to find meaningful, do-or-die playoff games on networks that you know in ESPN and ESPN2, TNT and TBS. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we're gonna have 12 playoff games — four games a night with doubleheaders each on ESPN and ESPN2. Turner Sports will have [NHL] games Thursday and Friday, and we’ll each have games on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Every time one of us has hockey, the other will have NBA games. It feels like March Madness, but bigger because it lasts longer and it’s multiple sports categories. 

MCN: What role does the streaming platform play in the postseason with all the NHL postseason games moving to linear?

IBH: All of the live games will be on a linear network somewhere, either on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, TNT or TBS, but the digital component does not go away. There are a lot of things we're doing on the digital side. Every single playoff game is available through archive re-airs on ESPN Plus. In addition, we're gonna be simulcasting the Conference finals and the Stanley Cup Finals on ESPN Plus. In addition, we’re going to have on ESPN Plus Quest for the Stanley Cup, which we produce in partnership with the NHL, that goes behind the scenes and inside the locker room with teams. So yes, the television live games will be on linear television, but the overarching multiplatform approach continues and even enhances when it comes to the playoffs.

MCN: By what metrics will you use to determine whether ESPN’s first year of NHL coverage under its new TV deal is a success? 

IBH: While the ratings are important, that’s not the only metric by which we judge success. Getting to see the usage on ESPN Plus and being innovative in bringing live sports to Hulu, as well as being able to launch these storytelling franchises and studio shows like The Drop and launching on TikTok are all how we measure our success. If it was just a ratings play, we’d be happy with that, too, but that’s not the only metric. I've been beating that drum internally a lot, because I think there are a lot of people who have for years and years thought whether the ratings were up or down was all that matters, but it's not. It’s a much, much broader and more well-rounded story than that. ▪️ 

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.