The NHL returns to ESPN in a blockbuster deal

Seven-year deal brings the league back to the Worldwide Leader In Sports

In news certain to please hockey fans across the United States, the NHL officially announced its return to ESPN on Wednesday after seventeen years. This came as the league decided to split its television rights package with two different partners as opposed to one media outfit – in this case, NBC and parent Comcast, who’ve held the rights for the last decade-and-a-half. 

And the deal goes beyond linear TV with a streaming component featuring more than 1,000 games per season marketed to out-of-market viewers. 

ESPN parent The Walt Disney Co. struck a seven-year, $2.8 billion deal with the NHL starting this fall and lasting through 2028. ESPN and ABC will televise 25 games per year as part of the new deal, including all Stanley Cup Final games in four of those seven years with all matches airing on ABC. ABC/ESPN also gets exclusive coverage of one Stanley Cup Playoff Conference Final series and half of all quarterfinal and semifinal games. 

ESPN also gets the All-Star Game and Skills Challenges and the opening night game in October. 

Signaling the sign-of-the times, the deal puts 75 exclusive games on ESPN Plus and Hulu streaming services, and more than 1,000 out-of-market games being made available to ESPN Plus subscribers. It replaces the NHL.TV service, which is being discontinued (The NHL’s Centre Ice package is not affected.) 

“This partnership of the world’s top hockey league and the platforms of The Walt Disney Company is a big win for our fans and our game,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Not only will this groundbreaking, seven-year deal enable the NHL to benefit from the incomparable power, reach and influence of The Walt Disney Company and ABC/ESPN, it sets a new standard in delivering our game to the most passionate and tech-savvy fans in sports in the ways they now demand and on the platforms they use.”

The return of hockey to ESPN is indeed a victory for fans. ESPN was the home to the NHL from 1979-88 and again from 1993-2004 when the cable network and the league went through a messy divorce shortly after the NHL locked out its players for the 2004-05 season. NBC’s been home to the NHL ever since, with the most recent deal in effect since 2010. 

Hockey also returns to ABC for the first time since the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals. ABC carried an ESPN-produced package of regular season and playoff games in 1993 and 1994 and again from 1999 to 2004. Fox had broadcast rights from 1995 to 1999. 

Many of those who worked on hockey coverage when ESPN last held rights are still with the network: Linda Cohn, Barry Melrose, Steve Levy, and John Buricross, and they are expected to play a role (play-by-play team Gary Thorne and Bill Clement are not expected to return.) 

Cohn and Melrose currently host an hockey wrap-up show on ESPN Plus, In The Crease. 

As for current rights holder NBC, there’s a chance the network could continue to air the NHL with the other half of the package – which includes the Winter Classic, still up for grabs. In addition, parent Comcast is closing NBCSN at year’s end and if Comcast gets the other package, future games could air on USA Network or streaming service Peacock, though the latter has some reach issues. Also, NBC has unofficially committed to renewing Sunday Night Football and with the price tag upwards of $4 billion amid a pandemic and an economic slowdown, Comcast is being forced to revaluate its rights deals. 

Fox and CBS are also reportedly interested in the second part of the package.

Not affected is the NHL’s current deal in Canada, where Rogers Communications is currently in the middle of a twelve-year deal for exclusive national rights. Rogers sub-leases Saturday night games to the CBC to keep their Hockey Night In Canada tradition alive. 

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