The Walt Disney Co. and the NHL on Wednesday confirmed that they’ve come to terms on a long-term pact that will bring pro hockey back to ESPN while amplifying the value of the network’s burgeoning over-the-top service.
While terms of the deal were not disclosed, sources have indicated that Disney has inked a seven-year pact with the NHL valued at between $2 billion and $2.2 billion over the course of the agreement.
ESPN’s stewardship of what amounts to the NHL’s marquee package begins with the 2021-22 season and extends through the end of the 2027-28 campaign. Negotiations for the secondary package remain fluid.
Legacy TV and the inevitable future that is streaming media are both well represented under the deal. For example, the broadcast network ABC, which currently reaches more than 91 million TV households, will air 25 exclusive national regular-season games, as well as a number of playoff matchups.
Perhaps more important, the broadcast component guarantees that the NHL will reach the greatest number of TV homes during the Stanley Cup Finals, four of which Disney will present between now and 2028. Whereas NBC Sports has long split its Stanley Cup Final coverage between the flagship NBC network and NBCSN, with the cable channel carrying Games 2 and 3, Disney’s deal will make ABC home base for each game of the best-of-seven title series.
Securing a broadcast home for each of the Stanley Cup Final games is not insignificant; per Nielsen, the shift from NBC to the lesser-distributed NBCSN in recent years has resulted in a ratings drop of between 30% and 35%. (NBCSN’s carriage agreements with cable and satellite operators were largely predicated on those two championship telecasts; in other words, as much as the NHL would have preferred for Comcast to air every Stanley Cup Final on the NBC broadcast network, the media giant would have done so at the expense of its cable networks business.)
Simulcasts on the ESPN family of networks will expand the overall impact of the Disney-produced Stanley Cup Final outings, while allowing for a handful of niche offerings to air in conjunction with the primary broadcast. While programming specifics have yet to be hashed out, it’s likely that alternate feeds on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU may be provided to super-serve the relevant fan bases—a strategy familiar to anyone who’s watched one of the ESPN MegaCast feeds during the College Football Playoff Championship.
In addition to the broadcast TV element, ESPN’s linear channel will carry half of Disney’s allotted playoff games. ESPN each season also will produce 75 national regular-season games, which will stream exclusively on ESPN+ and Hulu.
In January, Disney announced that ESPN+ had signed on 12.1 million subscribers, up from 7.6 million in February 2020.
In what amounts to marketing coup for Disney’s streaming service, the NHL’s out-of-market streaming package, which features more than 1,000 games and is currently priced at $149.99 per season, will shift to ESPN+ at no additional cost to subscribers.
Speaking to reporters shortly after the deal was formally announced, ESPN chairman and Disney sports content chief Jimmy Pitaro characterized the agreement with the NHL as a “paradigm-shifting deal,” before adding that the streaming component will make ESPN+ a “must-have for hockey fans.”
While much of the early coverage of the Disney-NHL deal has characterized the new ABC/ESPN assets as half of what NBC Sports currently controls, the reality is that in securing a second media partner, the league has agreed to create a massive amount of additional national inventory. If NBC Sports over the years has had the luxury of enjoying a personal pan pizza all to itself, under the new arrangement, Disney and the as-yet-unidentified second NFL partner will now be splitting a family-sized pie between the two of them. (At the risk of pushing the pizza metaphor to the brink of absurdity, the streaming components are the Crazy Bread in this particular scenario.)
The Disney deal also includes extensive highlight rights.
ESPN as yet has not identified who it’ll tap to helm its NHL studio and game coverage, but top candidates include in-house broadcasters Steve Levy and Linda Cohn, as well as former fixture—and fan favorite—Gary Thorne.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman noted that day-to-day oversight of NHL Network, which has been controlled by Disney Streaming Services, will revert to the league starting next season. “We’re going to continue to explore ways to increase its carriage,” Bettman said of the cable channel, which currently does not serve enough subscribers to justify being rated by Nielsen.