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ESPN’s NHL Deal Shows Broadcasters a New Way to Profit From Sports Rights

Spreading hockey matches across various channels and streaming services has led to higher viewership and more ad revenue.
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Illustration: Yann Bastard for Bloomberg Businessweek

For hockey fans, this year’s playoffs have been as good as it gets. After a competitive season flush with scoring, the National Hockey League’s yearend tournament has seen a half-dozen series go all the way to seven games. In almost half of the matchups, the winner has come from behind. And in one semifinal game, the Colorado Avalanche scored three times in just over two minutes, helping put the team into the Stanley Cup final against the two-time defending champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

For ESPN, which last year won the right to broadcast NHL matches through 2028, the playoffs have been equally thrilling. Games have averaged 1.1 million viewers, the company says, up 30% from NBC Sports’ broadcasts last season. Subscribers to the ESPN+ app, which also airs the NHL, have climbed 62% in the past 12 months, to 22.3 million, after years of anemic growth for the $7-a-month service that includes more than a dozen sports. Hockey has been a “significant” part of the recent bump, says ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro.