Gary Bettman’s plan to deal in a second network for a piece of the NHL’s media rights package is about to come to fruition, as the league is closing in on a formal agreement to bring ESPN back into the fold after a 17-year absence.
Sources on Tuesday said ESPN is on the verge of inking a seven-year contract with the NHL that will see that Disney cable net earn the right to televise as many as four Stanley Cup Final matchups between 2022 and 2028. While terms of the agreement—which has yet to be finalized—remain murky, it is believed that ESPN will pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion to $2.25 billion for the package.
ESPN and the NHL declined to comment on the negotiations.
Word of the ESPN-NHL negotiations began circulating last year, and it was predicted that Disney was likely to prevail in a bidding war with Fox. Now that Disney is getting closer to hammering out its Monday Night Football renewal, much of the guesswork on budgeting for an NHL splurge has been eliminated. Re-upping with the NFL for 10 years is expected to cost Disney some $25 billion over the life of the deal.
In addition to the linear TV rights, the new NHL deal will allow for the streaming of live games on ESPN+. The streaming service at last count had signed on 12.1 million subscribers, and its reach will be amplified this week when it is integrated with the legacy Hulu platform.
The growth of ESPN+ is a top priority in Bristol, which is looking to boost its streaming base to 30 million subs as the impact of the legacy cable bundle diminishes. “We won’t contemplate rights deals going forward that don’t envision ESPN+ being a major player in the use of those rights,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek told investors last week during the virtual Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecommunications Conference.
A formal announcement could arrive before the end of the week. If recent history is any guide, at least some ESPN staffers will have to work to regain their credibility in the eyes of hockey fans. First Take’s Max Kellerman last summer let fly with monologue about the relative popularity of the sport, saying: “I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but in the United States of America, no one really cares about hockey. … It’s not one of the four major team sports.”
ESPN’s Linda Cohn, a diehard New York Rangers fan, gave Kellerman a piece of her mind via Twitter after his rant went viral. When word of the ESPN-NHL talks began circulating earlier this evening, hockey enthusiasts on the social-media platform were unanimous: Give Cohn a piece of the action the moment the rights transfer to Disney.
Meanwhile, legacy rights holder NBC Sports is working toward hashing out a limited renewal with the league. Back in 2011, NBC and the NHL came to terms on a 10-year, $2 billion deal that saw NBC retain exclusivity over both the broadcast and cable rights.
NBC’s 21st century stewardship of the NHL preceded its acquisition by Comcast. After the disruption of the 2004-05 lockout, NBC outmaneuvered ABC for the NHL broadcast package, while the Comcast-owned Outdoor Life Network, or OLN, grabbed the cable rights in a three-year, $208 million deal after ESPN passed up on the chance at forging ahead with the league.
Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal in 2011 simplified the NHL’s media rights arrangements, bringing the two components together under one roof. While NBCU would have liked to retain its exclusivity, the sheer metric tonnage of programming hours that haven’t been snatched up by ESPN will still go a long way toward populating the evolving linear channel USA Network and the new over-the-top service, Peacock.
The streaming platform is expected to play a far more significant role in NBCU’s sports programming in the coming years, especially now that Comcast has announced it will shutter NBCSN by the end of this year.