Oct 12, 2021 - Sports

NHL finally returns to ESPN

Illustration of a hockey puck with the ESPN logo on it sliding across the ice.  

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

ESPN on Tuesday will finally bring the NHL back to the network after a 16-year hiatus. 

Why it matters: "It's the first time one of the major North American sports leagues will have a major rights package focused mostly on streaming," Russell Wolff, general manager of ESPN+, told Axios.

Details: The seven-year deal, announced in March, gives the network's roughly 15 million paid ESPN+ subscribers access to roughly 1,000 out-of-market matchups. ESPN+ and Hulu subscribers will also get 75 ESPN-produced exclusive telecasts per season.

  • The deal also gives ESPN the rights to air 25 games to air across its linear TV channels, including ESPN and ABC, as well as early-round playoff series and one conference final each year. Four of the seven Stanley Cup Final will air on ABC.
  • The network Monday also announced a few new technological updates, like adding more camera angles than was possible using aerial cameras. Camera operators will also be able to be on the ice for shootouts and coming out of breaks.

Yes, but: The real challenge for the NHL and ESPN is to find ways to grow hockey's U.S. audience.

Between the lines: ESPN is trying to balance keeping its best and most expensive programming for linear TV while also making some available for streaming subscribers.

  • Hockey, like European soccer, is good because it's top-level talent in sports with strong but limited followings in the U.S. In many ways, ESPN+ is poised to compete most with the various league-specific offerings (NHL Center Ice, NBA League Pass, etc.) than other streaming services.

The big picture: The deal "sets a template for how do deals in the future," says Ilan Ben-Hanan, senior vice president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN.

  • Wolff notes that while negotiations with every league are very different, the company is eyeing every sports deal that comes to market.
  • For example, ESPN in August linked an eight-year exclusive deal with Spain's top soccer league La Liga, which makes most matches available on ESPN+.

Go deeper: How to watch the NHL this season

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