By Nathan Anderson | Follow me on Twitter @ndrsn27
By far, the biggest hockey news this week in terms of the casual fan is the news that broke this week, that the NHL has reached a seven-year deal with ESPN. The self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports is set to broadcast NHL regular season and postseason games starting next year with the 2021-2022 NHL season.
Let’s break down this image a bit, shall we? First, let’s dive into some of the bullet points given by the NHL PR team, and then we’ll sum it up and discuss what it means for the NHL and the game of hockey.
Exclusive coverage of 4 Stanley Cup Finals
This doesn’t come as much of a surprise, given that NBC Sports seems to be struggling recently. After announcing that their cable channel would be shutting down, with games getting moved to Peacock and other satellite NBC networks such as the USA Network in the near future, the market seemed primed for a new major company to step in.
While the Stanley Cup Finals won’t be joining ESPN exclusively, they will be implementing a Super Bowl-like method of alternating networks every year. This may be an excellent thing for the game and for enticing casual viewers to tune in. ABC/ESPN has a much higher presence during non-broadcasting hours in terms of showing commercials during other games or programs. This means that someone who is watching a Monday Night Baseball game or SportsCenter at 6 AM has a better chance of being alerted to the fact that the Stanley Cup will be on the next night, potentially bringing in more people who otherwise would not have tuned in. This can also push other broadcasters, whether on NBC, or another company (like FOX), to improve the quality of their broadcast, creating a competitive industry around producing the best possible NHL broadcast, which can only be a good thing.
Half of Stanley Cup Playoff games
In addition to their four exclusive Stanley Cup Final broadcasts, ESPN also will be the provider of half of all the rest of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This includes one exclusive Conference Final series every year and half of the first and second-round games around the NHL. One notable point is that the first and second rounds are not necessarily exclusive to ESPN. This leaves the door open for regional channels like our beloved NESN to cover those games as well, similar to previous seasons. If you were worried that we wouldn’t get to hear enthusiastic broadcasts and series breakdowns like the one below from Jack Edwards and Andy Brickley due to this deal, don’t lose hope yet, I would expect them to at least have coverage of the first round still.
Regular season and streaming
In terms of volume, the most substantial area of this deal comes in the regular season and streaming conditions. ESPN and ABC will have coverage of 25 exclusive national games throughout the season, which will likely be similar to NBC’s current Wednesday Night Rivalry program or ESPN’s Monday Night Baseball games. Again, this shouldn’t affect our ability to watch Bruins games on NESN any more than we currently can.
Where it gets interesting is the implementation of ESPN+ and Hulu in this deal. According to the NHL’s statement, ESPN+ will cover over one thousand games throughout the course of the 2021/2022 season, including 75 exclusive national games. This may seem like a lot, and if you’re worried that you may have to buy an ESPN+ subscription to watch Bruins games, I don’t blame you. If the Bruins are one of the 75 national games broadcasted on ESPN+ or Hulu, it seems as though that will be the case. However, there are workarounds that you can use to access ESPN+ for free for a short period of time. While it is a bit discouraging to see ESPN putting some exclusive content behind a paywall, for out-of-market fans, ESPN+ should be a great option (especially if you used NHL.tv before) to watch Bruins games wherever you are. For New Englanders, though, you can still expect to watch the Bruins game on NESN unless it is selected as one of the 100 exclusively broadcasted national games.
What does this mean?
If you’re like me, then you might not have been happy with the way ESPN has covered, or more accurately ignored, the NHL for a while. They even laid off seemingly everyone apart from Barry Melrose a few years ago in their mass purge of staff. This move should reverse that and hopefully propel NHL content onto the national stage. I would expect someone like John Buccigross (@buccigross on Twitter), who has shown a passion for college hockey and knowledge of the sport, to be called on to help out with NHL coverage. SportsCenter should start showing more hockey content than just the odd highlight here and there, with hockey ideally being put into the mix with their other partnered sports like the NBA and NFL.
This move will help elevate hockey to the main stage and hopefully grow the game we all love to watch. Having multiple national broadcasting companies showing games should create competition to improve the product that could trickle all the way down to NESN and other regional channels. We might even see ESPN dip into hometown broadcast teams much like NBC has done in the past to pull someone like Andy Brickley for a national game. Ultimately this increases the game’s visibility, and for all involved, that is a great thing. Especially everyone that has missed the ESPN hockey music.