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NHL TV Rights with Disney, Turner Emphasize Streaming Future (While Keeping One Foot in Linear)

After a decade-and-a-half with NBC, the NHL has officially moved on to (much) greener pastures for the 2021-22 season and beyond.

We already knew that a good portion of the regular season and playoffs for the next seven seasons would appear on ESPN, ABC, ESPN+ and Hulu. Then on Wednesday, we learned that the rest will not return to NBC — but instead head to Turner Sports for a reported $225 million per year. That deal is initially going to revolve around TNT and TBS, though it seems HBO Max would also be involved “eventually.” That could explain the price point of an ad-supported HBO Max at $9.99 per month, since live sports adds new value to that service.

When combined with the Disney deal, the NHL will be taking home $635 million per year in national media rights for the next seven years. That’s more than 3x the deal the league is currently in the final year of with NBC (priced at $200 million per year), while providing significantly more exposure across a collection of broadcast and cable partners, plus widely available streaming services. It doesn’t completely elevate the NHL from the lowest-earning of the “Big 4” sports leagues in the U.S. However, it’s now the fifth-most valuable annual contract behind the NFL, NBA, MLB and March Madness.

This is no small feat for the NHL considering the depths it sunk to following the 2004-05 lockout that completely cancelled the season and appeared to permanently relegate the league to second tier status behind the aforementioned competitors. After missing a year, the NHL came back to the air through a deal with NBC and the NHL Network. But exposure was minimal until the playoffs. About 15 years later, though, the league’s added two teams (Vegas Golden Knights and the soon-to-start Seattle Kraken) and is back to being a core part of ESPN’s offering. It’s a comeback story, to say the least.

And while the focus above is on linear exposure — you could argue games on ABC, ESPN, TNT and TBS outweigh NBC and the soon-to-fold NBCSN — the core value for the future of the league could really come from how it’s putting so much stock into streaming going forward.

Elevating Hulu as a destination for NHL games benefits both parties, and having NHL.tv (it’s out-of-market season pass for streaming) folded into ESPN+ greatly increases the reach for those games around the country as well. Subscribers to ESPN+ or the Disney bundle that includes the service have just gotten a service upgrade potentially free of charge. And now the NHL basically gets its own streaming service all built into the existing ESPN+ framework.

On the HBO Max side, live NHL games eventually airing there could be a long-term differentiator for WarnerMedia’s service, especially if first-run movies won’t appear on it past 2021. Though it still has a ways to go, HBO Max has the brand equity and IP to be the third streaming option for audiences behind Netflix and the Disney bundle. Amazon’s their primary competition, and has the NFL. But the NHL has more games and less market ubiquity for its content. As the NHL grows into a streaming-focused league (as will be the case for all live sports at some point), partnering with a growing streaming service could be the sort of rising tide that lifts both of those boats.

Even without a game airing on TV yet for 2021-22, the NHL’s already secured a much more lucrative future for itself. And premium streaming placement could be the most valuable aspect of all by the time the contract runs its course in seven years. While NBC helped keep the league afloat in its toughest moments, it seemingly wasn’t able to usher it into this next growth phase through streaming. Now, Disney and Turner get to enjoy the spoils (as does the NHL, getting to work with better-positioned streaming platforms).