« Back to Posts

ESPN’s NHL TV Rights Deal Show New Positioning for Hulu, ESPN+

As we discussed not too long ago, part of the coming shake-up for TV rights could include the NHL returning at least in part to ESPN. On Wednesday, that was made official — and while ESPN hasn’t confirmed the financial terms, the Wall Street Journal’s reported they’ll pay $2.8 billion over the course of the seven-year deal (so $400 million per year — twice the NHL’s current contract with NBC).

To commemorate the league’s return to ESPN for the first time since 2004, the network shared this nostalgia-fueled video.

While yes, it’s an excellent promo, the biggest news of ESPN regaining broadcast rights to the NHL is the fact that this will be a multi-platform arrangement that involves not just ESPN, but streaming services ESPN+ and Hulu. As Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of ESPN and sports content for Disney, shared in a statement: “This agreement… serves as a blueprint for sports deals in the future.”

The high points:

  • 25 regular season games per year on ESPN or ABC
  • Early-round playoff series and one conference final per year
  • Four Stanley Cup Final series on ABC over the seven years
  • Over 1,000 games on ESPN+ per season (moving streaming service NHL.TV into ESPN+)
  • ESPN+ and Hulu will be home to 75 ESPN-produced telecasts per season

Though this doesn’t mean ESPN is the exclusive home for NHL games, it certainly eats into NBC’s long-standing relationship with the league as its exclusive national TV partner. But when the expansion Seattle Kraken join the league next season, the league will have over 1,300 regular season games per year. So ESPN’s now taking a considerable chunk of that from NBC, who’s still the most likely holder of the remaining rights in a new deal yet to be decided upon.

And while the big coup for ESPN here is getting more championship content — joining the NBA Finals (ABC), College Football Playoff (ESPN), soon Super Bowl (ABC) and various NCAA championships — the most important aspect of this deal may be its long-term bet on streaming.

Sharing national TV rights with NBC is a small price to pay, really, when ESPN’s getting ALL of the NHL’s streaming rights under Disney’s roof. NHL.TV was charging consumers $145 for streaming access to out-of-market games. Now those consumers can pay considerably less ($72 per year on its own) for ESPN+ to get those games and the rest of the service’s offerings.

Really, out-of-market NHL games become the largest draw yet for ESPN+ — a service that’s largely been small conferences and overflow game content. Now, it’s the “Sunday Ticket” of hockey — and maybe a blueprint for how ESPN+ can be the new home of Sunday Ticket as well, when the NFL finds a new home for that plan this offseason.

There’s also the interchangeable use of Hulu and ESPN+ along with ESPN/ABC sports broadcasts — really a first for Disney — and one that now put them in more direct competition with Peacock and Paramount+ for premium sports viewing.

One reason the NHL was content to move a lot of its rights away from NBC was the fact that NBC Sports Network will be shutting down, and a good deal of hockey games were set to move to either USA Network or Peacock. This move arguably puts even more hockey games on streaming — but services (ESPN+, Hulu) that aren’t necessarily struggling for subscriber growth or retention. NHL games also get to be part of a larger and more natural draw for sports content in the case of ESPN+, as it previously enjoyed on NBCSN.

As Disney takes more and more steps to be a streaming media company, evolving how it utilizes ESPN+ and Hulu had to be part of that strategy. The NHL is the first and biggest move. But given what Disney’s shelling out for SEC content, the NFL and more, it would be a natural fit to drive subscriptions with additional games and shows for those popular properties housed on the streaming services.

We’re seeing this with ViacomCBS and NBCUniversal as well. Approaches toward content and ad-buying are becoming unified across streaming and linear TV. That’s sped up by more deals like the one with the NHL here.

Given the amount of TV rights up for grabs in the coming few years, this does plot an interesting path forward for ESPN and its competitors while fighting it out over who’s broadcasting what (and for what price). For some time, tossing games to streaming seemed like it was throwaway content. Now that’s not the case. With streaming, “space” is also no longer a concern for ESPN, FOX or competitors. You can showcase as many games as you want, theoretically, no matter the time slot.

Though this could seem like a volume play on paper — and it is, to some extent — the NHL remains one of the four most popular pro sports leagues in the U.S. and adding this much of its inventory is a big deal. This is quality AND quantity. And best of all for Disney, they’re using that to test-drive a new approach to its streaming services now that Disney+ is growing rapidly with plans for 100 new shows.

After thoughts that ESPN and Disney could be going the conservative route on this round of media rights deals, it seems a company-wide emphasis on streaming may in fact embolden the opposite. We’ll see how it all turns out. But initially, it seems to be a smart move that forces everyone else to play catch-up.