NHL Deal Gives Turner Six Months to Develop TV Plan

Anthony Crupi
·6 min read

The NHL and Turner Sports on Tuesday made their union official, as both parties announced they had reached a seven-year deal for what is widely referred to as the league’s “B” media rights package.

Per terms of the pact, TNT will televise the three Stanley Cup Finals not already claimed by fellow newcomer ESPN, as well as the Winter Classic. Together, TNT and its sibling channel TBS will carry as many as 72 exclusive regular-season NHL games per year, beginning with the 2021-22 season.

While financial terms were not disclosed, insiders said that Turner Sports is paying just shy of $230 million per year for the hockey slate, which works out to $1.6 billion over the life of the contract. All told, the NHL’s two-partner rights jamboree will generate some $600 million each year, or north of $4.3 billion through the 2027-28 campaign, when step-ups in the latter seasons are factored in.

Under the NHL’s current pact with exiting partner NBC Sports, the league took in $2 billion over the course of the last decade.

While Turner’s NHL deal includes a provision to stream live games via the HBO Max service, WarnerMedia News & Sports chairman Jeff Zucker said his team wouldn’t rush headlong into bringing hockey over-the-top. “We’re really focused on the Turner networks, TNT and TBS, given their full distribution,” Zucker said this afternoon during a call with sports reporters. “We’re excited to have the optionality to put these games on HBO Max as well, and that will happen in years to come as HBO Max continues to grow. We’re going to skate where the puck is going… but it’s not imminent, and it’s not going to happen this year.”

As is the case with any linear TV deal that includes a provision for games to be streamed via a direct-to-consumer platform, WarnerMedia is cognizant that the need to protect the extremely robust cable model trumps the impulse to accelerate the build-up of its emerging streaming service. TNT and TBS are among the most-distributed ad-supported cable networks on the dial, and their combined reach and elevated sub fees churn up more than $3 billion in annual affiliate revenue.

Zucker said he’s had an ongoing back-and-forth with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for the better part of a year, adding that their conversations started to get more focused “over the last several months.” Once it became clear that NBC was heading in a different direction, the chance to lace up with the NHL was too good to pass up.

“Outside of the NFL, which just did not make economic sense for us, we were always going to look at premium sports properties as they came up,” Zucker said. “The NHL was something that obviously we were interested in.… I’ve known Gary a long time, dating back to my days at NBC, and I’m thrilled to be back in business him.”

For his part, Bettman wanted to dispel any notion that NBC’s decision to forge ahead without the NHL had any basis in a sort of shared acrimony. “Despite a lot of speculation to the contrary, we part friends, each of us understanding why we made the decisions that we both made to reach this point,” Gary Bettman said of NBC Sports, which had served as the league’s exclusive U.S. media partner since 2005.

As Turner scrambles to assemble a studio show and an NHL broadcast team, Zucker said it remains to be seen which night would be reserved for the weekly hockey telecasts. Both networks are already stocked with top-tier sports content, as TBS in the fall airs regular-season MLB games on Sunday nights and playoff games throughout the week, while TNT’s Tuesdays and Thursdays are already spoken for during the NBA season. The two cable channels also carry a healthy allotment of March Madness games.

Zucker added that while Turner is planning to create an NHL studio show that offers the same balance of insight and irreverence that’s been a hallmark of Inside the NBA, he hasn’t arrived at any decisions about on-air talent. “Obviously, there’s a style to Turner Sports, and we want to bring that same approach to the NHL,” Zucker said, before saying that the show that bows next fall will be “innovative, fun and dynamic.”

“And that’s what we’re excited about,” Bettman remarked. “We’re counting on it.”

The Turner deal comes on the heels of ESPN’s return to the NHL after a hiatus of nearly two decades. The Disney pact includes 25 regular-season games that will air on ESPN or ABC (another 75 are slated to stream on ESPN+ and Hulu), an early playoff series and one of the two Conference Finals. As is the case with the NBA, stewardship of the NHL’s Eastern Conference and Western Conference Finals will alternate between Turner and ESPN/ABC. Disney also will crown four NHL champs between the start of next season and June 2028.

That Disney and Turner now share the rights to the NBA and NHL should only serve to optimize the scheduling of the respective postseasons. Playoff season can be downright hectic, given the sheer volume of pro hoops and hockey games that air each night in the spring, so the benefit to the leagues and the media partners is impossible to overstate.

As many decisions as Zucker has to make before the puck drops next fall, the NHL itself also faces a number of questions going forward. Bettman said that while he has no plans to discontinue NHL Network, specifics as to how the league will continue to distribute the channel have yet to be finalized. Under the terms of the ESPN deal, NHL Net, which had been operated by Disney’s BAMTech division, will revert to the league.

If it perhaps seems inevitable that the NHL will face some growing pains with its two new media partners, NBC’s decision to close out its association with the league obviously won’t have an impact on its upcoming postseason coverage. “Our partnership with the NHL will end at the conclusion of the upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs and Stanley Cup Final, which we will present with the same excitement and professionalism that fans have come to expect since the 2005-06 season,” an NBC Sports exec said in a statement released earlier today. “We thank the league, its players, coaches and fans for their friendship, cooperation and viewership, and we wish the league continued success.”

In the modern Nielsen era, NBC has aired seven of the 10 most-watched NHL games in the U.S., including Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. The Blues’ 4-1 victory over the Bruins averaged 8.72 million viewers. The league’s all-time biggest stateside draw was Game 7 of the Canadiens-Blackhawks series, which averaged 12.4 million viewers on CBS back in 1971, well before the advent of the Nielsen People Meter.

If there’s no attendant bitterness in the NBC-NHL split, nor will the changing of the guard shake up how the NHL prepares for the Winter Olympics—at least not in the near term. As Bettman observed, the collective bargaining agreement dictates that NHL players will be eligible to play in the 2022 Beijing Olympics and the 2026 Winter Games in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo.

As part of a $7.75 billion extension it hashed out seven years ago, NBC retained the rights to air the Winter and Summer Olympics through 2032.

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