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In its battle for the fans of the future, the NHL is hoping its two new TV partners can give hockey a leg up. This week, the league will have its first look at ESPN’s and WarnerMedia’s differing strategies for growing the sport without losing its diehard supporters.
ESPN gets the first shot Tuesday, as the 2021-22 season starts in Tampa Bay, home of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning, followed by the first game of the expansion Seattle Kraken. “It’s a massive responsibility,” ESPN NHL studio anchor Steve Levy said about supporting the sport during a press call last week. “I take that piece very seriously every time we go on the air. We just missed it so much.”
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NHL games have aired on ESPN dating back to 1979, but the network hasn’t had rights since ESPN opted out in 2005, with games airing on NBC and under the Comcast umbrella thereafter.
During that period the NHL—like most major sports—faced a serious challenge to its cultural status. Between 2006 and 2016, the NHL’s fan base aged more than any other team sport’s did, according to a 2017 study. “The NHL Is Old AF,” is how Vice put it at the time, even though the NHL’s average fan was still younger than the NFL’s or MLB’s. Earlier this year, 8% of parents of Gen Z children (born 1997-2012) told Morning Consult that their kids were hockey fans or frequent viewers. That number dropped to 5% for parents of kids born since 2013.
A new pair of TV partners is the latest of several major NHL efforts to develop young fans. If they’re successful, hockey’s reputational nadir could be behind it. Last summer, then-First Take host Max Kellerman declared that “no one really cares about hockey. … It’s not one of the four major team sports.” Don’t expect similar pronouncements on ESPN airwaves anytime soon, now that Disney is paying the NHL about $400 million annually for its rights.
ESPN execs repeatedly turned to “access” and “storytelling” when explaining how the network’s coverage would stand out. In particular, producers are looking to highlight how the sport has evolved since 2005. At a large production seminar in Chicago recently, leadership stressed its desire to showcase “speed, skill and strategy.”
ESPN’s coverage will include on-ice cameras as well as player- and puck-tracking data integrations. It’ll also offer a touch of nostalgia. “People have asked, Is the music coming back?” ESPN SVP, production and remote events, Mark Gross said in an interview. “Yes. The music is coming back. But we’re here to showcase the league and the players.”
Technically, the NHL has already been a part of ESPN’s offering for years. Over the last few seasons, ESPN+ has aired scores of non-exclusive games throughout the regular season. Disney Streaming Services VP, marketing, Claisian Phillips said behavioral data gathered from those ESPN+ customers helped inform the network’s main NHL marketing campaign: All for Hockey.
“One of the biggest things that I kept coming back to is just how deeply [hockey fans] go with the content,” she said in an interview. “They were always there. They were always streaming. So, if you’re for hockey, you’re all for hockey. That’s the thing that kept sticking out to us.”
Starting this year, ESPN+ comes with access to every out-of-market game, which previously required a separate subscription to NHL.TV.
“It’s a very big deal for us,” NHL EVP for strategic planning Stephen McArdle said in an interview. “We have a lot of faith in putting that bundle of rights onto someone else’s platform because we know the strength of the ESPN brand.” Beyond the 15 million existing E+ subscribers, McArdle cited the nearly 100 million social accounts ESPN is able to reach across its various digital brands. “We’re excited about the new audience that this is going to open up to hockey,” he said.
Meanwhile, TNT will step onto the ice Wednesday, with a focus on its ability to grow the sport by highlighting personality and culture. WarnerMedia is paying over $200 million annually for its rights deal.
“Hockey has been so stale for so long,” TNT analyst Anson Carter said during a press call last week. That word won’t be used to describe Carter’s NHL on TNT studio show, where he’ll be joined by Wayne Gretzky, Paul Bissonette, Rick Tocchet and host Liam McHugh.
“We have this emphasis on the intersection of sports and culture,” Turner Sports chief content officer Craig Barry said last week. “We think that intersection really resonates with a much wider net when it comes to audiences or demos, and we feel like we have an equal obligation to the hardcore fan as we have to the casual fan.”
For his part, McHugh said he had “self-edited” himself while hosting NBC’s coverage in the past, but he was attracted to the chance to be looser at TNT. Paul Bissonnette, who played six seasons mostly as an enforcer, has made a second (arguably more successful) career being unfiltered on Barstool Sports’ Spittin’ Chiclets podcast. Tocchet, an 18-year NHL player and most recently head coach of the Arizona Coyotes, introduced himself to many fans during the preseason, when he nearly kicked McHugh in the groin during a demonstration. Then there’s Gretzky, who brings gravitas—and star power—to the set.
“What resonates with fans when they see any of our coverage is that our announcers… are talking just like you talk at home,” Turner Sports SVP of talent services and special projects Tara August said during a press call last week. “We just like to have a lot of fun.”
Working with ESPN and TNT counterparts this offseason, NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer quickly picked up on their differing approaches, ones he expects will ultimately be complementary.
When introducing a new player, he said ESPN is more likely to focus on their background with “a dramatic story about that life.” On TNT, however, “I think it’s going to be a little more about their lifestyle, their fashion, how they hang out, what they like to do,” Mayer said. He added that ESPN’s show will lean a little more into X’s and O’s while TNT goes for irreverence.
“And that’s where I think we win,” Mayer went on. “It’ll feel different from night to night just because of the sensibilities of the networks.”
TNT also brings the power of sister brand Bleacher Report, which has launched an “Open Ice” vertical featuring creator Andrew “Nasher” Telfer. With HBO Max also a part of WarnerMedia, the NHL is hoping its newest, seven-year TV deals will allow it to navigate the ongoing transition to streaming.
The league is also hoping to benefit from the fact that its two biggest partners air NBA games, too, opening up opportunities for schedule coordination and cross-promotion. TNT commentator Eddie Olczyk has even floated the idea of having Inside the NBA personalities join NHL broadcasts.
The NHL has its own efforts to grab younger viewers as well. It has pushed its athletes to embrace social media, going so far as to create a show around player content during the pandemic. It has also brought in teens to consult the league as part of a Power Players initiative.
“As we’ve focused on millennials and Gen Zs, we’re focused on doing things that we can to reach them in more ways than maybe anybody else is, and more than we have in the past, even though we tend to skew younger,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in April as the league announced its new TV deals. “This is just consistent with our ongoing strategy, to make sure we service our current fans, and we develop the next generation of fans.”
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