When word leaked a few days ago that the NHL and ESPN were working toward a lengthy deal, I wrote about how big such a deal could be for growing the game. However, there were still questions of the full terms of the deal, how ESPN+ would factor in, and what ultimately led to ESPN’s decision to get back into the hockey business for the first time since 2004.

On Wednesday afternoon, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro addressed the digitally assembled media to discuss how the deal came about and why it’s a “win-win-win”.

A Larger Share of the Pie

A key part to this TV deal is the recognition that ABC/ESPN is getting the larger share of what will be a split TV rights deal with another network.

Gary Bettman was very clear in his remarks that the bid from ABC/ESPN was higher than the 10-year, $20m deal they’re finishing up with NBC:

In fact, Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reported that he’s heard the seven-year deal is worth $2.8 billion.

So what is ABC/ESPN getting in return? They’ll be getting four of the next seven Stanley Cup Finals. They’ll get half of the NHL playoffs. They’ll get to choose which conference finals they want to cover. That optionality is well worth the price for a network that’s been largely out of the hockey game for 17 years.

Exclusive Games

This is where things get interesting. Pitaro noted in his remarks that ESPN has been pushing for a hybrid approach to TV rights deals the last few years to include linear networks (ABC/ESPN/ESPN2) and streaming (ESPN+). As most soccer fans know, both Serie A and the Bundesliga are almost exclusively on ESPN+, but a few games have been shown on those linear networks, as seen this past weekend when Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund played “Der Klassiker” on ABC.

As part of the deal, 25 regular season games will be shown on ABC/ESPN. On the ESPN+ side, 75 exclusive national games produced by ESPN will be available only on ESPN+ and Hulu. At the moment, ESPN+ has roughly 12 million subscribers, while Hulu has around 38 million. This is the only real potential sticking point with those who are still paying for traditional cable. The comments made by Pitaro made it sound like if the Flyers and Penguins, for example, are playing one of those 75 exclusive ESPN+ games, NBCS Philly won’t have it. To those outraged by such a move, I’d note that a number of cable companies have integrated ESPN+ into the apps section of your interface.

The Biggest Perk

Let’s say you’re upset that you could potentially have to shell out $5.99 a month for the base ESPN+ package. Here’s some worthwhile news: you’ll have access to roughly 1,100 out-of-market games. As part of the deal, ESPN+ is effectively absorbing what used to be NHL.tv, which means that if you’ve been paying for NHL Center Ice, for example, you might save money by just getting the ESPN+ base package, while gaining access to a ton of other sports content and exclusive NHL programming.

There was initial fear that the 1,100 games could have been an add-on charge in addition to the base ESPN+ package, like you’d pay to access a UFC pay-per-view, but Pitaro and Bettman appeared to squash that notion. Rather, this appears to be just like what ESPN+ has done with Serie A and the Bundesliga: all of the games available for no additional charge.

Interested Parties

Bettman noted that NBC is still interested in engaging the league on the remaining TV rights portion of the deal, namely the other half of the playoffs, the other conference final, and three Stanley Cup Finals. Bettman did note that whichever of the other suitors gets involved could be getting the opportunity to broadcast a set of nationally-televised games as well.

I mentioned this the other day, but the value NBC brings has tanked a bit, especially since they’ve opted to shut down their sports network and will be migrating some NHL games to the USA Network. I also question how much NBC values the league, given they were unwilling to preempt reruns of “The Wall” and “The Weakest Link” for the Flyers/Bruins game in Lake Tahoe.

FOX has long been rumored as an interested partner, but they’ve lost the rights to the Bundesliga to ESPN/ABC, as well as the UEFA Champions League to CBS over the past few years. I’ll be interested to see if CBS mounts a competitive offer, featuring a heavy streaming component as they look to add even more live sports content to Paramount+.


This is an excellent deal for a league in desperate need of more exposure and widespread acceptance. As Pitaro noted, tongue-in-cheek, ESPN is “pretty good” at marketing star players. As Bettman put it, this deal is a win-win-win: a win for Disney, a win for the league, and a win for the fans.

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