A Blast from the Past that will Shape the Future: What Does the NHL’s Return to ESPN Mean for the Future of Live Sports Video?

In 2007, after ESPN had screwed over Fox (who had reportedly been thinking of putting the entire Stanley Cup Final on broadcast television) in taking control of the entire NHL broadcast contract and proceeded to barely promote it at all (especially after taking over the NBA contract a few years later) and bump it to ESPN2 if just about anything and everything could be put on ESPN ahead of it, most infamously poker, then turned down a $60 million option to extend the contract in the wake of the lockout leaving the league to turn with their tail between their legs to the outfit then known as the Outdoor Life Network, then made NHL highlights virtually persona non grata on SportsCenter to the consternation of hockey fans who felt ESPN, then at the seeming height of their monopolistic power, was sticking it to any league or entity that didn’t bother to sign a contract with them… if you told hockey fans that ESPN would end up being the entity responsible for putting every game of the Stanley Cup Final on American broadcast television, would they have believed you in a million years?

But indeed, that’s what will happen in four out of the seven years, including (presumably) next year, of ESPN’s new agreement with the NHL announced Wednesday, a deal that will reportedly pay the NHL $400 million a year, close to twice what NBC was paying for only half the national television contract. Perhaps no other recent sports rights deal better captures the shifts in the video (it seems gauche to call it “TV”) business in recent years, and it’s hard to think of one that will have more of an impact (the reported move of Thursday Night Football to largely being exclusive to Amazon feels like more of a paradigm shift but hasn’t been announced yet and may have less relevance to defining the role of linear television going forward). In something that would have been unthinkable, certainly for ESPN, maybe five years ago, this appears to be a deal largely about ABC and ESPN+, with linear ESPN largely an afterthought. 

In addition to making the NHL.TV out-of-market package available only through ESPN+, ESPN has the rights to air 100 exclusive games, three-quarters of which will be streaming on ESPN+ and Hulu, with the remaining 25 on ABC or ESPN. To put that in perspective, the last non-pandemic-affected season ran for 26 1/2 weeks, so that would amount to roughly a game a week on linear television of some variety. It’s certainly possible that ABC would only air one or two regular season games a year with the rest on ESPN or ESPN2, and it’s also possible that games on ESPN linear platforms would air almost randomly various days of the week, but the latter doesn’t seem like ESPN’s style, and the fact that the deal includes a weekly NHL studio show, which could air on any of ABC, ESPN, or ESPN2, suggests to me that it’s intended to be associated with ESPN’s linear games a la TNT’s Inside the NBA, which in turn suggests ESPN intends to air games on a consistent day of the week, possibly in a consistent timeslot. If ESPN and the NHL intend to air more than a handful of regular season games on ABC, and putting the entire Stanley Cup Final on there seems to suggest so, they would probably have to put that weekly game on a weekend and put them all on ABC after NFL season ends, which would mean ESPN’s cable networks would only air regular season games during NFL season and when ABC has other commitments, only returning for the playoffs. (If the timeslot has to be consistent all the way back into October, it would have to be on Sunday to avoid competing with college football games; ABC has long had NBA on Sundays in winter and spring but has been putting more emphasis on its Saturday primetime slot in recent years.)

The fact that the deal includes coverage of the NHL’s Opening Night would seem to favor a more consistent weeknight timeslot, though considering ESPN’s NBA commitments that night probably isn’t Wednesday when Opening Night typically falls (though turning Wednesdays into NHL/NBA doubleheader nights is certainly possible), and I would expect the NHL would want whatever additional partner they can get on board to air the entire Stanley Cup Final on broadcast as well, meaning they’d need weekend space for that channel by the same logic. (Although ESPN has reportedly signed up for the “A” package, meaning they get first choice of what conference final they want to show every year, so if there’s going to be any differentiation between the packages you’d expect ESPN’s to be more prominent.) If that means clearing space on a Saturday, that likely rules out Fox with how much it’s invested in college sports in recent years (FS1 is the linear network most able to show Wednesday night games, the NHL’s equivalent to TNT’s Thursday night NBA when most of the schedule is empty, but the Opening Night thing suggests that’s likely to stay in the ESPN family anyway), and it makes things difficult for CBS (who’s also been associated with NHL rights, though as a big long shot) with their college basketball commitments throughout most of the winter up to the end of March. That would leave NBC in the best position to re-up with the league and provide additional space on broadcast television, while also providing additional content for Peacock and possibly USA.

(SportsBusiness Journal‘s John Ourand reported Turner “would be interested in a deal if the price comes down far enough“, which hadn’t previously been talked about recently, and didn’t mention CBS, but I have to imagine Turner’s piece of the pie would be more limited than it would be with NBC, Fox, or CBS, and could mean ABC takes every Stanley Cup Final. On the other hand, Turner certainly could accommodate a weeknight timeslot, including on Wednesday by moving their All Elite Wrestling Dynamite program; USA is less able to move WWE’s NXT because that program’s presence on linear television and Wednesday nights is largely intended to compete with AEW. Ourand also reports that negotiations with NBC have been “strained” particularly with regards to price, but Fox has had little in the way of talks as they seek to finalize their NFL deal.)

If I’m right about this deal primarily being about broadcast television and streaming, with linear cable being largely an afterthought, it might be the biggest sign yet of the impending collapse of the cable bundle and the future of sports video distribution in a post-bundle world. Certainly it’s a set of priorities that makes sense. Regardless of the economic incentives, from a technological perspective linear television provides the most benefits in the wireless context where all the wireless providers, over-the-air broadcasters, and numerous other uses have to share the same spectrum as opposed to all of it being controlled by the owner of the infrastructure, and where over-the-air broadcasting provides a carrier-agnostic platform for the delivery of live content, helping preserve the spirit of net neutrality. Games on ESPN’s linear platforms will also be simulcast on ESPN+ and Hulu, so regardless of which network gets the lion’s share of games, this amounts to acquiring NHL rights for Disney’s streaming platforms first and foremost, and using linear television as an additional distribution mechanism for the most attractive games, lightening the load on Internet-based distribution networks. Coupled with the impending shutdown of NBCSN, which suggests the “narrowcast” model of cable networks is in decline, if this trend holds it points to linear networks serving primarily as an extension of and advertisement for streaming outlets, distributing the most popular content but otherwise taking a back seat.

That raises questions about the future of Fox and specifically its sports division. It was always somewhat odd when Fox sold most of its entertainment business to Disney, but on the surface it made sense as the company seemed to be prepared to refocus on live events and possibly get out of scripted programming entirely. But having the Fox studio library become part of Disney’s new streaming service effectively meant Fox wouldn’t be able to launch one of their own, and now Fox doesn’t have an escape route, unable to extricate FS1’s rights from the cable bundle and requiring any sports rights on Fox or FS1 to stand on their own without the backing of a streaming service. At best, they could launch a streaming service that’s all about sports, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as powerful as what ESPN brings to the table, and the announcement the same day as the NHL deal that ESPN+ is now being offered through Hulu (even though exclusive NHL games will be available to Hulu subscribers without it and there doesn’t even seem to be a discount, making it purely about convenience and interface continuity… for now) suggests Disney isn’t confident the sports-centric ESPN+ can stand on its own. (Similarly, DAZN already looked somewhat vulnerable with their lack of linear outlets and insistence they shouldn’t be necessary, but if the idea of a sports-centric service at all without entertainment content is on as thin ice – no pun intended – as the ESPN+/Hulu combination suggests Disney thinks, that raises all the more questions about its future – assuming getting acquired isn’t the long-term goal of the people behind it.)

That leaves Fox stuck with events and properties popular enough to air entirely on linear television, namely the NFL, or with a small, well-defined number of events that can be stuck there, like the World Cup, or a mix of both as with NASCAR. Fox’s ability to branch out from those things is limited, and there have to be open questions about the long-term viability of the rights outside those categories that they already have (such as college sports and MLB), leaving them a sitting duck and potential acquisition target. If the NHL reaches a deal with Fox it’ll signal that leagues intend to form relationships with singular streaming services with any other linear deals as adjuncts; reach a deal with NBC that includes a significant presence on Peacock (or with CBS or Turner and their respective streaming platforms), and it’ll signal leagues are fine with spreading comparable rights across multiple streaming platforms.

Regardless of where the second half of the package goes, it’s so odd to think of the NHL, the least popular of the so-called four major team sports by some distance, having not only two media partners, but two broadcast network partners. The Stanley Cup Final will now not only have a presence on two different broadcast networks, with ABC becoming almost all sports for two to three weeks in June every other year as the Stanley Cup Final shares time with the NBA Finals, but may have a “megacast” across the ESPN family of networks when the NBA Finals don’t (though the way the relevant clause is phrased in the press release, as the right to have a “simulcast or megacast”, it may end up meaning just extending the ESPN+ simulcasts to the playoffs and the Final). To be sure ABC affiliates would likely insist on maximizing the audience watching high-profile events on their stations that can be directed to their other programming, which is less of an issue for the lower-wattage Stanley Cup Final, but it’s still an odd look (and CBS’ experiment with airing an NFL wild card game on Nickelodeon, as well as ESPN giving their wild card game the Megacast treatment, suggests affiliates may be becoming more open to this sort of thing than in the past). The NBA’s current deals expire in 2025, four years into this NHL deal, and I have to imagine they’ll be watching the success of the NHL’s deals closely and try to regain any perceptual edge they might be perceived to have lost. If that includes a presence on a second broadcast network, it may mean abandoning Turner Sports, which has been a huge boon to the league for decades, for reasons having nothing to do with its coverage or ability to pay, and even if not a more broadcast-centric linear television landscape would raise serious questions about Turner Sports’ future. (At this point, though, a combination with Fox doesn’t seem to make as much sense as it did back in 2014, and a combination with NBC or CBS might make more sense.)

Regardless of what this deal means for the NHL, though, despite the NHL’s limited place in the American sports landscape, there may be no deal more meaningful in setting the sports broadcasting landscape of the future.

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