The NHL’s bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton are holding fast through the first full month of the resuscitated 2019-20 season, and if the league can continue to hold the coronavirus pandemic at bay, its future prospects appear to be unlimited.
Two days after the puck dropped on the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the NHL confirmed that it had navigated the fourth week of its Return to Play initiative without a single player or staffer testing positive for COVID-19. Approximately 24,542 tests have been administered since the twin bubbles were sealed on July 26, with players subjecting to the swab probe on a daily basis.
While it’s far too early to claim victory over the virus that has been implicated in more than 825,000 worldwide deaths, the remarkable cooperative efforts of NHL players, team personnel and health-care workers have brought hockey back from the brink. And as the playoff games and negative tests continue to pile up, so will the number of dollars it’ll take to secure a long-term media rights deal with the NHL.
Incumbent NBC Sports has one year left on its $2 billion contract with the NHL, which includes a right-of-first-refusal clause. If there’s little doubt that NBC will continue its stewardship of pro hockey, it may have company. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said that the league may stand to benefit from a more effective promotional push if it were to diversify its rights package beyond the current single-partner model. (Out-bid by NBC back in 2011, ESPN and Fox remain interested in carving out an NHL package of their own.)
NBC, naturally, would just as soon preserve its exclusivity. Its partnership with the NHL not only keeps it flush with the live sports content advertisers crave, but it also provides leverage to build on the NBCSN cable network’s carriage fees, which by 2022 are expected to generate some $462.5 million in revenue based on an average cost of $0.47 per sub per month. Moreover, NHL franchises are key drivers for five of NBC’s regional sports networks, including the one that serves Comcast’s home market of Philadelphia.
No formal talks are expected until after the league brings the curtain down on this unprecedented season; should circumstances warrant, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final would be played in Edmonton on Sunday, Oct. 4. Also scheduled for that evening: A Week 4 Sunday Night Football matchup between the Eagles and 49ers.
If the relative stability of the bubble scheme weren’t reason enough for the market to be bullish on the NHL, the fan response to summer hockey has been nearly as encouraging. Thus far in the playoff run, TV ratings haven’t been a burning issue; in fact, the first round of postseason action out-delivered the analogous games back in April 2019. According to Nielsen live-same-day data, primetime playoff coverage on NBC and NBCSN averaged 827,000 viewers and a 0.52 household rating, up a tick compared to last year’s opening round (780,000, 0.45 rating).
It’s perhaps worth noting that last year’s first round saw no fewer than three series go the full seven games, while not one of this year’s openers went the distance. The early playoff success comes on the heels of a round of qualifiers that was up 40% versus the NHL’s pre-pandemic average.
That August hockey deliveries are trending up is particularly impressive, given the overall state of the TV landscape. Through Aug. 24, or the 90th day of the 2020 summer TV season, network TV usage is down 19% year-over-year, while the number of adults 18-49 has fallen 36%. The tune-in comps are even rougher when the most recent Nielsen numbers are juxtaposed with those gathered last spring. Back on April 28, 2019, when NBC began its first Sunday of quarterfinals coverage, 91.4 million primetime viewers were plopped in front of their TV sets. By comparison, 75.4 million viewers were watching TV during this past Sunday night’s quarterfinals.
If it’ll be hard to top last year’s Stanley Cup Final—Game 7 of the instant classic between the Blues and Bruins averaged 8.72 million linear TV viewers (8.91 million with streaming) and a 4.9 rating, making it the most-watched NHL game in the modern Nielsen era and the fourth-biggest draw in league history—hopes for a massive turnout this time around depend on another seven-game championship tilt. A Boston comeback bid presents the best odds for a big ratings splash; the B’s have featured in seven of the top 10 all-time highest-rated Stanley Cup Final broadcasts and played in the two most-watched NHL battles of the 21st century.
Through the fourth night of quarterfinals action, Boston is leading all comers in the ratings game. The B’s helped NBC scare up 1.79 million viewers during the Sunday night opener against Tampa Bay, which made this the second most-watched game of the NHL season, behind only the Jan. 1 Winter Classic (1.96 million). Should the Bruins rally past the Lightning, they’ll face one of two other surviving major-market squads in the Flyers or Islanders.
If the postseason thus far has been a testament to what Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr have managed to accomplish in the face of a global pandemic, the era of cooperation-by-fire bodes well for the league’s media outlook. This is especially true if the NHL finds itself having to implement a more comprehensive bubble strategy in order to proceed with next season’s schedule. (If you’re at all superstitious, this is your cue to knock wood.)
The consistency and volume of its content make the NHL a must-buy. As MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson notes, the NHL’s sheer metric tonnage of programming minutes and the relative thrift of the current deal—the analyst estimates that NBC pays $7.60 for every 1,000 minutes of hockey viewed on its networks, a relative pittance compared to NASCAR’s $23.97—should translate to a hefty rate hike when the negotiations begin in earnest.
Nathanson believes the NHL’s asking price could rise to as much as $376 million per season, although a redistribution of the assets across two or more media partners is likely to add a layer of complication to the new payment structure. However things shake out, the often-underestimated National Hockey League has set itself up for a very lucrative payday.
However things shake out for the NHL down the road, its media partner will have to go without playoff hockey for a few nights. On the heels of postponements by the NBA, WNBA, MLB and MLS, NHL players on Thursday elected to initiate a work stoppage in a show of solidarity with the other leagues, a move that will delay at least four playoff games. Players are expected to return to the ice on Saturday.
Shortly before Thursday night’s games were scrapped, Islanders head coach Barry Trotz told reporters that he supported his players’ decision to sit out their upcoming meeting with the Flyers. “They understand the importance of the playoffs, but they also understand where the world is right now,” Trotz said. “In my opinion, I think all sports should play because I think the athletes in every sport have a great platform. … If you want to keep the issue in the forefront, then … continue to play, continue to express the message. And if you do that, that will effect change for our country. And it definitely needs it right now.”
While the NHL bubbles aren’t exactly impermeable to outside information, at least one insider said he was initially taken aback by those who criticized New York and Philly for playing on Wednesday night. “We’re in this bubble right now. I have really no idea what’s going on in the outside world,” said Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault. In a postgame briefing Wednesday night, the self-professed “hockey nerd” expressed reservations about any possible disruption in play.
“You know, at the end of the day, I believe the NHL’s a great league and I believe the NHL is doing everything that they can to, obviously, help in their own way, what society is going through,” Vigneault said after the Flyers topped the Isles in overtime by a 4-3 margin. “We all see the signs. We’re all for equality, and for social justice, but right now what I think we’re trying to do is play a game. … This is the most important time of the year for us—it’s playoff hockey.”