NHL rights: NBC’s out, Turner’s in

Surprise bid from WarnerMedia subsidiary ends NBC’s 16-year run

In a surprise no one saw coming, WarnerMedia’s Turner Sports skated away with the remaining NHL package in a deal officially announced Tuesday by outbidding NBCUniversal and Fox Sports, one of two put up for bids recently by the league with ESPN and ABC acquiring the other portion several weeks ago. 

Starting this fall, Turner – owners of TBS, TNT, and TruTV is going to air up to 72 games per season, along with the other half of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and three Stanley Cup Finals matchups in odd-numbered years. 

Also included is streaming rights through HBO Max – though how this would happen is still under discussion, marking the first sports property acquired for the fledging streamer. Turner would reportedly pay $225 million yearly for the entire length of the contract, spanning seven years. Also in the deal is the yearly Winter Classic and digital rights for Turner-owned Bleacher Report. 

Turner has had experience airing hockey, but in a limited fashion. In the days when Ted Turner owned the station, Atlanta’s WTCG (later known as WTBS and now known as WPCH-TV) aired Flames games in the 1970s until the team moved to Calgary in 1980. The former Turner South aired Atlanta Thrashers games and continued to do so when the network was sold became a secondary channel for Fox Sports South (now Bally’s Sports Southeast.) The team left Atlanta after the 2011 season for Winnipeg and became the Jets, a reboot of the former NHL franchise in the Manitoba city. 

Turner’s TNT also aired Olympic hockey when they shared rights to the Winter Games with CBS in the 1990s. 

The addition of the NHL fortifies an already busting sports roster for Turner with rights to the NBA and MLB (including playoffs for each), PGA Golf, and NCAA Tournament Basketball with the Final Four in even-numbered years. 

“Our strategy at Turner has been to be involved with the most premium sports content, and I think we’ve put together a portfolio that reflects that,” WarnerMedia News & Sports chairman Jeff Zucker said in a press release. “And adding the NHL to that portfolio only enhances Turner Sports.”

The deal marks the end of the line for NBC as rightsholder after sixteen years. After a brief stint in the mid-1970’s, the network returned to the hockey business in 2004 after ESPN cut the league loose in a unique deal whereas NBC didn’t pay a rights fee. The network later was acquired by Comcast and struck a ten-year deal with the NHL for games on NBC and NBCSN (formerly Versus/OLN, owned by Comcast before the merger.) The pending closure of NBCSN may have played a role in NBCUniversal pulling out of the bidding with nowhere to put the games.

During the second NBC era of the NHL, the league saw the rise of superstars of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, and Alex Ovechkin, and the creation of the outdoor Winter Classic (the second was at Wrigley Field.) The NBC era also saw the resurgence of the Chicago Blackhawks, winning three Stanley Cup championships (with the first one breaking a 49-year drought) and giving NBC-owned WMAQ its highest ratings since the Bears won Super Bowl XX in 1986 and the Bulls’ six championships in the 1990s when NBC had the rights to the NBA. 

Other notable achievements in the NBC era included the Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, Washington Capitals, and St. Louis Blues each winning their first Stanley Cup championships. 

But there were some downside moments too, including controversial off-screen comments made by Mike Milbury and former Hawks star Jeremy Roenick resulting in their firing and way too many games with 11 a.m. or 11:30 a.m. Central time starts, not to mention a recently botched Lake Tahoe outdoor game between Las Vegas and Colorado.  

You have to question why the NHL decided to move some of the Stanley Cup Final entirely to cable in an era where viewers are cutting the cord and especially a league who has the smallest fanbase of all four major sports in the United States – not to mention past complaints from viewers when two Stanley Cup Final games were exclusive to Versus/NBC SN. But the allure of over-the-air broadcasting isn’t as great or prestigious as it once was, and they’ll have roughly the same number of regular-season and playoff games they had on NBC. Maybe they’ll stream the Stanley Cup Final on HBO Max, but if they don’t then that’s a problem. 

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