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Streaming Takes Center Ice in NHL-Disney Rights Deal

NHL ESPN Disney Sports Rights
Streaming is a big part of Disney's new sports right deal with the NHL (Image credit: NHL)

Streaming will become a bigger part of sports rights deals in the future, judging by the new agreement struck by The Walt Disney Co. and the National Hockey League.

Both the league and Disney, which has pivoted from traditional media to streaming, called their agreement a template for subsequent deals and that viewers would be looking for games on the kinds of platforms Disney is building.

“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. “We really look forward to giving fans unprecedented access to an incredible lineup of NHL games and programming.”

The agreement calls for 75 national games per season to be streamed on 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 seven-year pact 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.”

That means future rights negotiations will focus on streaming. 

“This deal is really a template of things to come. This is how we are evaluating things as we move forward, looking through both a linear lens and also the direct-to-consumer lens,” Pitaro said.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the agreement puts the league “on the cutting edge of content distribution.” The deal has both a linear package as well as a “forward-looking strategy focusing on the impact of streaming,” Bettman said.

Bettman called this a transformative time in media, particularly sports media.

“For us, this reflected the reality of what the media world is looking like now,” he said. “Everybody knows that there is cord cutting and everybody knows that the streaming platforms are growing dramatically and we think that at some point, probably relatively early on in this deal, that there is going to be a convergence.”

Between Hulu and ESPN Plus, they’ll soon have as many subscribers as some cable networks, Bettman noted.

Bettman said that linear coverage was also an important part of the package, with many of the league’s playoff games being on ESPN and ABC and with the Stanley Cup Final best-of-seven being on ABC in the years when Disney televises the championship series.

Disney and other programmers are also negotiating new rights deals with the National Football League. Comcast NBCUniversal wants some of that league's powerful programming on its Peacock streaming service and ViacomCBS wants some football on Paramount Plus.

The NFL’s Thursday Night Football package might go to Amazon Prime, which has been sharing that package with Fox and the NFL Network.

But football is a different sport, with a very limited supply of games in its 16 games season, compared with the 82 NHL teams usually play. Because of COVID, this year's NHL season will be 56 games.

ESPN refused to pay a rights fee when its previous deal with the NHL expired in 2005. Hockey is attractive to ESPN now because the Sports Leader is looking to expand its audience and likes what is sees in hockey’s younger, growing fan base. Those fans tend to be tech savvy and either cord cutters or cord nevers.

“ESPN Plus will now be a must-have for hockey fans,” Pitaro said. He added that having such a large volume of games will make ESPN stickier with subscribers.

With the completion of its deal with Disney, 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 in making a deal with the NHL even after the Disney deal being finalized.

NBCU is planning to close its NBCSN cable sports network, where many NHL games appeared. Some of NBCSN’s sports programming is heading for USA Network, the rest to Peacock.

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