NHL is back on ESPN: Why new broadcast agreement could benefit both sides

For more than a decade, NBC has served as the exclusive broadcast partner for the NHL. Starting in October, that will no longer be true. 

On Wednesday, the broadcasting agreement between the league and Disney/ESPN became official, with four of the next seven Stanley Cup Finals airing on ABC and ESPN becoming the primary cable and streaming partner starting in October and running through the 2027-28 season. 

And there is still a secondary package with another media player to come, putting the NHL into the "multiple-media-rights-deals" stratosphere of the NFL, MLB, NBA and PGA Tour.

"The other three major (sports) all have multiple partners," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters on a conference call Wednesday,  "so they’ve already figured out to divvy the rights among them." 

So many great @NHL memories on ESPN.

So many more to come! pic.twitter.com/AoblbN2ky2

The NHL saw the billions of dollars other leagues' rights deals were bringing in and decided to emulate them in a way.

For ESPN, acquiring more broadcast rights has been the blueprint since president Jimmy Pitaro took over about three years ago. And another sport to diversify the Disney stock is all the motivation ESPN needed. 

"We're focused on creating shareholder value," Pitaro told reporters during the same conference call. 

The last time the NHL appeared under the ESPN banner was prior to the 2004-05 lockout (the theme music is returning, thankfully). Harboring the passions of a supposedly growing fan base will be paramount. Pitaro said the latest data he'd seen saw viewership in this for the coveted 18-to-49 demo is "up around 30%." 

"From when I first got to ESPN, we sat down as a leadership team and looked at the data and looked at the demos," Pitaro said. "They have a young demographic here, one of the youngest sports, in fact. When you look at ESPN’s priorities, one of our top priorities is audience expansion. That includes attracting this younger demographic."

Multiple networks are bidding for the other half of the NHL's rights, and both NBC and FOX are making a play for package, a person with knowledge of the discussions told USA TODAY Sports. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations are not publicly discussed. 

Bettman said the next package will be worked on in the coming weeks, but he and the NHL gave Disney first dibs and specifically catered to them. Half of the Stanley Cup Playoffs will air on ABC and ESPN each season. Coverage of opening night games, the All-Star Game and other special events each season are also reserved for Disney properties. 

"For us, this was the best of both worlds," Bettman said. "We’re getting the linear exposure that more traditionally we need and want, at the same time we’re on the cutting edge of what’s coming with streaming." 

And yes, the theme music is back ? pic.twitter.com/6HSQiyKRGs

ESPN+ has more than 12 million subscribers, and the NHL (and ESPN) are both banking on Hulu's reach (nearly 40 million subscribers).  Subscribers to ESPN+ (or Hulu + Live) will have access to 75 exclusive regular-season games, in addition to more than 1,000 games previously under the NHL.TV package. Twenty-five regular-season games will be shown on ABC or ESPN.

"If you look at the amount of national exclusive territory that’s going to live on a direct-to-consumer platform, this hasn’t been done before," Pitaro said. "On top of that, really the jewel or the centerpiece is the out-of-market games, which again will be available within ESPN Plus. We feel this is going to help accelerate the product and our subscription base."

For ESPN, this could mean more native hockey content — Pitaro mentioned "In the Crease" show that airs on ESPN+ nightly — or at least a heightened attention paid to the sport during popular programming, such as "Get Up!" or "First Take." 

When asked about the financials of the deal, and whether ESPN is paying more than NBC's annual $200 million, neither Pitaro nor Bettman would go there. 

All that matters to Bettman is that there is another check coming. 

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

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