Disney, WarnerMedia Have Big Goals for Hockey: New TV Audiences

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Fans of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” might get something next week they won’t be expecting — a tribute to hockey.

The Disney-backed sports-media giant expects to spend part of its next halftime show treating viewers to a concert as well as a surprise visit from someone who is emblematic of the icy pastime, says Mark Gross, senior vice president of production and remote events, in an interview. He declined to name the person likely to appear. The weekly football showcase “exposes a large audience to the NFL and a larger audience” to a new NHL schedule slated to start the very next night, says the executive.

“We haven’t had hockey in close to 20 years,” he adds. “When you lose a property and then you get it back? That doesn’t happen every day.”

Disney and rival WarnerMedia will, next week, start to skate on new ice. After spending the last 16 years at NBC, the National Hockey League will split its rights package between the two media companies, placing the bulk of it with ESPN and a smaller chunk with Turner Sports. For both companies, however, the sport, and next week’s season open, are crucial. “It’s been quite a few years since we’ve had a rights package with this much significance for us to sink our teeth into,” says Tara August, senior vice president of talent relations and special projects for Turner Sports.

In an era when a migration to streaming is causing the audience for any specific piece of programming to get smaller, sports like hockey are one of the few things the big media companies believe can keep big crowds tuning in. With the new rights come chances to make new money.  Advertisers spent approximately $191.3 million on national NHL broadcasts in 2021, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. That figure is up about 9% from the sport’s previous season. And both ESPN and Turner have the rights to develop hockey telecasts for their new streaming hubs, ESPN Plus and HBO Max. ESPN Plus will offer not only 75 NHL games exclusively, but become a hub for around 1100 out-of-market match-ups that fans who don’t live in the vicinity of a local team might not otherwise see. Plans for HBO Max have yet to be revealed, but WarnerMedia has already launched a new content vertical devoted to hockey on Bleacher Report, a sports-focused outlet that aims to reach younger consumers.

Disney and WarnerMedia are getting their chance because they both agreed to pony up fees to the NHL that will give the league significantly more than it was making from its long-term pact with NBC. Turner is likely to pay around $200 million a year for its NHL package, and ESPN is believed to be paying around $400 million — compared with the $200 million per year that NBC was paying the league for sole control of TV rights.

That means both companies are under some pressure to generate cash that will offset their pricey sports outlays.  NHL games could serve as a means of grabbing a new coterie of fans — and, potentially, get them to watch more of Warner’s and Disney’s traditional TV products. The NHL games give Warner a chance to stock the schedules of its large TNT cable network at a time when the usual building blocks of cable — scripted originals and, licensed movies and repeats — don’t command as much attention as they might have in a previous era. ESPN’s Gross believes the network may get NHL devotees to sample other parts of the company’s programming schedule and sports portfolio.

Fans are likely to see some of the same elements no matter which media outlet they watch. Both outlets have hired top hockey players to offer analysis and color. Turner has secured Wayne Gretzky, while ESN will tap Mark Messier. And both intend to give fans more information when the NHL’s video-replay facility in Toronto examines plays, with analysts turning to former hockey officials who can give viewers more analysis about rules and regulations. And both intend to hone data from tracking individual players with what Craig Barry, Turne Sports’ chief content officer, calls “jersey chips” in each game as they traverse the ice. “You can track the players along with the puck and experiment with data,” he says.

But the two media titans will approach coverage of the sport differently. Warner hopes to bring some of the success of its “NBA on TNT” franchise, where hosts like Charles Barkley and Shaquile O’Neal spend less time on the formalities of sports and more on their own individual takes. “We really just want to be genuine. That’s what resonates with fans. Whenever they see any of our coverage, our games and our studio announcers, they are really taking just like you talk at home,” says August. “It’s conversational. It’s cool. They don’t mind if they make fun of themselves or one another.”

ESPN, meanwhile, has the advantage of a broader media portfolio. The games can focus on the sport, says Gross but a new studio show devoted to NHL play can wander further afield. “I’d say if we talk about speed, skill and strategy, if we can showcase those things [during games] we will have a really good product on the air,” says the executive. The new hockey show, “The Point,” will “not necessarily be hard-core X-O hockey,” he says. “It’s less about scores and more about showcasing the players, showcasing the league, showcasing the different storylines that are there.” And ESPN and the NHL are in talks, Gross says, over the potential for new kinds of broadcasts that might tailor NHL play for specific audiences. ESPN has found success in creating new sports broadcasts for kids, and, more recently, a second telecast of “Monday Night Football” that relies heavily on commentary and chatter from Peyton and Eli Manning.

The true results from the companies’ investment in hockey will come through if they can put new audiences on ice, rather than seeing linear viewership totals melting away.