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NHL Exec Loves Move to ESPN+ Citing Boosts to Viewership, Engagement

Jeff Kotuby

The NHL’s big move to ESPN has one executive thrilled for the prospects of working with the Worldwide Leader in Sports.

During FierceVideo’s StreamTV Sports Summit, NHL’s chief business officer Keith Wachtel said the deal with ESPN+ will allow the NHL to, “tap into the breadth and scope of the entire Disney infrastructure” to create a new and unique experience for hockey fans fans. This includes, but isn’t limited to, sports betting, prediction games, new camera angles, and more.

Earlier this year, the NHL and ESPN reached a seven-year agreement on streaming and broadcasting rights, ending its long-standing agreement with NBC. The move would bring the NHL back to ESPN in more ways than one. Without rights, hockey coverage on the Worldwide Leader greatly diminished, seeing little coverage on its flagship program “SportsCenter” and being relegated to niche, ESPN+ coverage shows, much to the chagrin of American hockey fans.

The league also suffered with NBC’s lackluster array of networks, forcing playoff games onto CNBC, USA Network, and the soon-to-be-defunct NBC Sports Network. The latter even hosted Stanley Cup Final games — something no other league is subject to, where the NFL, NBA, MLB, and even MLS have their championship games shown on traditional broadcast channels. At the very least, the new deal should see the NHL get the respect it deserves, with playoff games available on actual sports stations and not a destination for people who want to watch “Shark Tank” reruns.

The league’s proposed gambling aspects should help increase fan engagement, including in-game betting. Said Wachtel, “Now imagine if you have, to your point, these in-game bets. Now you’re watching the game from start to finish so you can engage in that.” With more states legalizing sports gambling, sports’ once-dirty secret is able to flourish, which leads to big opportunities for broadcasting companies to embrace gambling, rather than rally against it.

The shift to streaming is a big deal, especially for a league desperate to capture a newer, younger audience. Millennial and Gen Z fans engage with sports differently than their predecessors, eschewing traditional TV in favor of streaming the final minutes of games and even consuming highlights in lieu of watching full games. The way Wachtel sees things, the NHL might be one of the leagues on the cutting-edge.

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