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NHL Notebook: What can fans expect from NHL in 2021-22 & beyond?

(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Be it a lucrative new rights deal, an incoming 32nd NHL franchise or the changing tides that come with (hopefully) weathering the final stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL seems poised to emerge from one of its toughest trials in league history with plenty of momentum. In the wake of a busy week for the NHL when it comes to inking a mega-deal with the Walt Disney Company, coupled with reflections from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on the one-year anniversary of the league shuttering operations due to COVID, let's take a look at what fans should expect from the NHL in 2021-22 and beyond when it comes to viewership, games and season structure.

Get ready for games on ESPN/ABC

By the time we potentially return to semblance of normalcy in the fall, the way we all consume NHL content is going to be very different — due in large part to the seven-year rights deal that the league signed with the Walt Disney Company earlier this week. As a result of this new partnership with the Walt Disney Company (which owns ESPN and ABC) the NHL will see the Stanley Cup Finals broadcasted on ABC four times over the span of that seven year contract.

Other key details from the new rights deal include:

  • Those ABC-broadcasted Stanley Cup Finals will be simulcast/megacast on the ESPN+ streaming service and additional ESPN networks.
  •  25 exclusive national regular-season games on ABC or ESPN each season.
  •  75 national regular-season games per season produced by ESPN that will stream exclusively on both ESPN+ and Hulu.
  •  Half of the Stanley Cup Playoffs will air on ABC and ESPN each season (ESPN and ABC will have live, exclusive coverage of one Conference Final series and half of all First Round and Second Round games from the Stanley Cup Playoffs).
  • ESPN/ABC will also include annual coverage of NHL’s Face-off (opening night games), the NHL All-Star Game and Skills Challenge, plus other NHL special events each season.
  • The ESPN+ service not only has the rights to simulcast the Stanley Cup Final, but will also stream more than 1,000 games — replacing the out-of-market streaming package offered by NHL.TV.
  • Extensive highlight rights that will incorporate more coverage across ESPN’s year-round news and highlights programming.
  • More original programming is expected to be announced in the coming months, including a new weekly studio show during the NHL season on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2.

While ESPN used to be a long-time broadcaster for classic NHL games, the "Worldwide Leader" has certainly drawn the ire of hockey fans for the past decade-plus when it comes to not giving the NHL a fair slice of the pie when it comes to coverage. And while there will still likely be skeptics in terms of just how much ESPN, ABC and the Walt Disney Company will truly elevate the NHL and attract more viewers, Jimmy Pitaro, Chairman of ESPN and Sports Content, believes that a major investment in the NHL stands as a prudent move, especially for a sport with a growing appeal among younger generations.

"They have a young demographic here, one of the youngest sports, in fact," Pitaro said of the NHL. "And when you look at ESPN's priorities, one of our top priorities is audience expansion. And that includes attracting this younger demographic. So again we said to the league, the ball is in your court, you let us know when you're ready to have a conversation. But once once we did start to have a meaningful conversation, it happened very quickly." 

Pitaro added: "We've seen the largest growth in (NHL) fandom among the major professional leagues since 2005. Viewership in 2021, for the 18-to-49 demographic, is up around 30% in the most recent data that I have. And all younger demos are up double digits. Again, that's all music to our ears as we look to attract the younger generation. We think NHL content and live games are going to significantly help us."

Set your DVR for other national networks as well

Of course, as noted in the language of this new NHL/Disney deal, only four of the next seven Stanley Cup Final will be broadcast on ABC/ESPN. What about the other three, along with the remaining half of those Stanley Cup Playoff games each year?

Those rights — along with likely plenty of other regular-season and playoff broadcasting perks — will be doled out to another network to round out the NHL's overall new rights deal. NBC, who is in the final year of a 10-year, $2 billion deal with the NHL, could very well remain in the picture, while FOX (bring back the glowing puck!) could also be in the mix to secure more games, and line the NHL's pockets even more.

While there has yet to be an announcement on which network will secure the remainder of those broadcasting rights, the NHL will soon find itself in a spot similar to the NBA — which has regular-season games, playoff games and original programming broadcasted by both the Walt Disney Company (ABC/ESPN) and Turner Sports (TNT).

"This has become an increasingly complicated media landscape," Bettman said. " In the old days, it was linear, than it was linear and cable, then it was cable and now with the streaming components — we needed to make sure that we were crafting a package that made sense to ESPN and The Walt Disney Company, and at the same time, attempt to reserve enough rights that we believe would be attractive for a second package. And we believe we've accomplished that.

"But you had to do one at a time in order to get it right and make sure that we weren't going to be promising the same thing in two different places. I thought it was important with Jimmy to make sure we were aligned as to what needed to be done. And then we'd have plenty of time to go to the next package of which I believe there's a great deal of interest that's been expressed to us."

What about the flat salary cap?