The NHL’s new national broadcast deals with ESPN and Turner Sports are already paying off, and not just because the league more than doubled its annual rights revenue.
Viewership for nationally televised NHL games in the first year under the new deals was up around 18% compared to the league’s final season with NBC Sports in 2020-21. The average of 460,000 viewers per game across ABC, ESPN and TNT was the league’s highest mark since 2016-17, when NBC and NBCSN averaged 474,000. The first season under the new deals was the league’s first with a full 82-game schedule since 2018-19 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wayne Gretzky brought an air of greatness to TNT’s coverage.getty pictures
David Proper, NHL senior executive vice president of media and international strategy, said that while sports viewership has improved across the board as the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives has waned, he believes the switch to new TV partners played a significant role in the increase.
“They’ve done some phenomenal promotion, they’ve done some new and innovative stuff around their hockey production and they’ve really done a lot of coverage of the game both linearly and digitally,” he said. “We believe that has increased viewership as well as fan interest.”
TNT, which accounted for the bulk of the league’s cable TV schedule this season with 51 games, averaged 361,000 viewers, an increase of 29% from games on NBCSN in 2020-21 and 24% from 2019-20.
Craig Barry, executive vice president and chief content officer at Turner Sports, said that while the public’s collective return to normal sports viewing habits in the wake of the pandemic was likely a major factor, the increase also serves as validation of the network’s unique approach to covering hockey.
TNT’s free-flowing studio show, which benefits from Paul Bisonette’s charisma and Wayne Gretzky’s stature, has proven popular with fans, and the company’s focus on access to individual players — in both its broadcasts and digital content from Bleacher Report — has helped highlight top stars ‘personalities.
Barry also pointed to a game-production style that he believes “creates a higher degree of engagement” by utilizing technology that helps tell the story of the game, such as virtual on-ice graphics and super slo-mo cameras.
“Quite frankly, the presentation is pristine, and I think that’s something that stands out when people see our coverage,” Barry said.
TNT benefited from airing the Winter Classic on cable for the first time — it had previously aired on NBC — and set an NHL regular-season cable record with 1.4 million viewers for the Blues’ win over the Wild at Minnesota’s Target Field. Many of TNT’s early-season games also had a strong lead-in from All Elite Wrestling, which has since moved to TBS to accommodate NHL doubleheaders.
On the Disney networks, the NHL averaged 469,000 viewers for 16 games on ESPN and 856,000 viewers for 10 on ABC. Linear viewership is a small part of the story, however, as regular-season hockey is primarily a digital play for Disney.
ESPN reserved the bulk of its national package exclusively for streaming on ESPN+ and Hulu, for which viewership numbers were not available, and also brought the league’s package of more than 1,000 out-of-market games to ESPN+. That contributed to a decline in the overall number of games on linear TV this season compared to NBC and NBC Sports Network in recent years.
ESPN declined to share data, but Ilan Ben-Hanan, senior vice president for the NHL on ESPN, said the company is pleased with the NHL’s ability to drive both streaming subscriptions and viewership.
“There have been nights where those out-of-market games are the most-viewed events on the service,” Ben-Hanan said.
He added that the network’s investment in hockey-related shoulder programming, such as “The Point” on linear, “In The Crease” on ESPN+ and “The Drop” on social media, has helped to establish ESPN as a destination for hockey fans. He said unique visitors for NHL content on ESPN’s digital platforms nearly doubled (+86%), while visits (+116%) and total minutes (+130%) more than doubled and viewership of clips and highlights increased significantly (+67%) .
Both Ben-Hanan and Proper also said the sport has received more exposure on ESPN’s general programming, such as “SportsCenter,” with content produced specifically for “The Point,” for example, making its way into other programming.
Both Turner and ESPN saw increased female viewership compared to last season on the NBC networks. On TNT, female viewership was up 56%, while ESPN said it saw viewership among women ages 25-54 rise by 7%.
Turner also saw success on social media and digital with the first season of its B/R Open Ice platform, which launched in October. B/R Open Ice had more than 1.3 million engagements in March alone and has grown its follower count by 46% since the start of 2022.