Friday, August 20, 2021

New media rights deal with ESPN a homerun for the NHL

By Zachary Baru

Perhaps some fans would call it a "hat trick", but regardless of what you refer to it as, the new media rights deal that places National Hockey League games on ESPN for the first time since 2004 is a major victory for the NHL and their brand.

It was June 7, 2004, at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.  The Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Calgary Flames in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, marking the last time ESPN broadcast an NHL game.  A lot has changed since 2004, and ESPN now has more networks than ESPN2 and ESPNews (yes, that is how they spell it).  ESPN is now an entire digital platform, as the ESPN App includes not only all linear ESPN networks, but also ESPN3 and ESPN+ live content, available exclusively to ESPN+ subscribers.  

To say it is a different world in media is an understatement, but this provides quite the opportunity for the NHL as they transition into a new media rights partnership.  In addition to games that are already on ESPN+, the new deal places games on Hulu as well, a platform owned by ESPN parent Disney.  Between ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, ESPN+ and Hulu, the NHL never has had more exposure, thanks to this new media rights deal.  

In addition to games across multiple channels and platforms, the new deal with ESPN can almost certainly provide more air time for NHL highlights on ESPN's SportsCenter, the highest rated sports highlight show in the U.S.  These highlights are arguably just as beneficial for the NHL as the platforms, since millions of non-NHL fans will be introduced to daily highlights, giving the NHL the opportunity to add new fans each day.

There are many reasons why having the NHL on ESPN brings the league to new levels, but besides the number of platforms of Disney/ESPN and the addition of highlights on SportsCenter, the legitimacy of ESPN cannot be overlooked.  ESPN is the premier brand of sports entertainment in the United States and in many parts of the world.  Simply being aired on ESPN brings the NHL to a higher level on par with other major leagues.  Not being on ESPN is perhaps a major reason why the NHL has lost respect of some sports fans since the league's departure from ESPN in 2004.  Now with the new rights deal, non-NHL fans might be more likely to give the NHL more respect, and most importantly, the television ratings and attendance that the NHL needs to compete with the other three major leagues.  Of the four major leagues in the U.S., the NHL will be the last to secure a current media rights deal with ESPN.

Whether it is long overdue or perfect timing in the new media landscape of digital platforms, the NHL on ESPN rights deal comes at a great time for the league.  On the network side, it also gives ESPN coverage with all four major leagues in the U.S., something that is very important to ensuring ESPN secures its status as the top sports network in the U.S. and in many areas of the world.  The recent additions of games on ESPN+ and the new coverage that will be coming to Hulu will give the NHL the streaming coverage all major leagues need in this new age of media consumption.  It is hard to say who benefits more from this new rights deal, but regardless of the true winner, both ESPN and the NHL have improved their brands in a partnership that has the opportunity to take the NHL to even new heights.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and

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