NHL Nets Double-Digit Ratings Gains in First Year of ESPN-Turner Rights Deal
BY TIM BAYSINGER
Having two media partners is paying off in a big way for the National Hockey League.
Skating into this weekend’s All-Star Break in Las Vegas, the league has seen a double-digit increase in viewership and ratings through the first half of its first season on ESPN and Turner.
Through Feb. 1, TNT is averaging 427,000 viewers across 20 telecasts, an increase of 16% from NBCSN’s Wednesday night games last season (TNT also airs games on Wednesdays). Those numbers are also up 14% from the 2019-2020 season on NBCSN. Compared to the last two full seasons, TNT’s audience is up by 53% over last year and 46% vs the 2019-2020 year.
Among female viewers, NHL on TNT is up by a massive 86% this season.
The New Year’s Day Winter Classic, which moved to TNT this season, drew 1.4 million viewers, the most-watched regular-season NHL game on cable ever. Not surprisingly, that game is the most watched NHL game this season on any network so far.
ESPN and ABC are having similar success this year with hockey coverage, getting off to a strong start with its opening night doubleheader in October, which was the most-viewed in NHL history. Season to date, ESPN’s games are up 8% in the ratings through the similar portion of last season’s COVID-impacted campaign on NBCSN; throughout the last comparable season, ESPN ratings are up 28% over 2019-20.
ESPN’s deal is a little different than Turner’s, with the majority of games being carried by Disney-owned streaming services Hulu and ESPN+. Only eight games have aired so far this year on ESPN and ABC, averaging 701,000 viewers.
“This deal is not and should not be judged only off of our television ratings,” Ilan Ben-Hanan, senior vice president, programming and acquisitions, ESPN, told TheWrap. “This was a paradigm-shifting deal. This was about attracting subscribers to ESPN+ and putting live sports on Hulu for the first time. By all of those metrics, this has been very successful.”
Ben-Hanan pointed out that ESPN has “internal metrics” that “attribute a lot of that growth” to pro hockey. “We’re very, very pleased, the league is very pleased. It’s halfway through first year of a seven-year deal, it’s exactly where we would want it to be at this stage.”
ESPN broadcast four of the top six NHL games on cable this season and ABC’s first game on Black Friday last November, between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, was the most-viewed Black Friday game since 2016, with 1.2 million tuning in.
Disney and TNT parent WarnerMedia are collectively paying around $625 million in rights fees each year for the next seven years, more than tripling the NHL’s haul from its old TV partner, NBCUniversal.
“The league was very interested in when they partnered with us and with Turner on potentially attracting beyond their hardcore that maybe there was some good people sampling across our networks. And I think that they’ve been pleased with that,” Ben-Hanan said.
The NHL lags in the ratings behind the other Big 3 professional American sports. Last year’s Stanley Cup Finals averaged 2.5 million viewers to watch the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Montreal Canadiens in five games. That was up from the 2 million that watched the Lighting defeat the Dallas Stars in six games the year before; as with the NBA, the last two NHL seasons were greatly disrupted, and delayed, by the pandemic.
In 2019, the last time the league was on its normal schedule, the seven-game series between the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins averaged 5.3 million viewers.
NBC splits the Stanley Cup between its broadcast network and cable channel NBCSN. Under its new deal, the Stanley Cup will rotate between ABC and TNT every other year.