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Will the NBC/NHL partnership end with this season?

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A report that NBC won’t be extending their contract to broadcast NHL hockey at all next season

2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic Press Conference Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Back in March, the NHL announced that they had reached an agreement to bring their league back to ESPN starting next season in 2021-22. ESPN will pay $420 million annually for the seven year package to get rights to all sorts of NHL events and games, spread across traditional television and the ever-expanding streaming platforms.

This sent a shock wave across the sport and has left the future of hockey on NBC up in the air. The NHL is also looking to negotiate a “B” package of TV rights, and won’t be exclusive on ESPN the way they have been exclusive to NBC in the past. This catches the NHL up to basically every other league with multiple broadcast partners (i.e. the Steelers play on almost a different network every week between ABC/ESPN, NBC, CBS, FOX and the NFL Network exclusive game).

In some aspects, the NHL and NBC extending their relationship is still the expected move. Just yesterday The Athletic’s NHL business reporter Sean Shapiro wrote an interesting article on the future of hockey broadcasting and called NBC’s “still the betting favorite at this point” to agree to be partners with the NHL on the B package. Shapiro also mentioned that package “ is likely going to come in with a $200 million annual price tag”.

This new round of broadcast rights fees is a big win for the NHL. It has been reported that NBC’s current deal that runs through this 2021 season is in the $200 million per year range. The NHL has already more than doubled that amount with their ESPN agreement, and now are looking to make that again with a supplementary network. I wouldn’t go dreaming about big salary cap increases just yet given the nightmare of escrow and revenue the sport needs to make up for over the last 14 months, but it’s a great step forward for hockey to cash in.

But will NBC, the “favorite” to get that second hockey package actually come through?

One source with connections doesn’t think so.

It comes from an interesting and perhaps curious angle too, in the form of WWE President and Chief Revenue Officer Nick Khan. Khan was on an investor call yesterday afternoon and one topic mentioned was the future of NHL television, believe it or not —

How would a professional wrestling executive know about this?

The WWE is heavily involved and partnered with NBC-Universal, with programs on Monday and now Tuesday night in prime time on the USA Network. There’s also the matter that NBC is paying over $1 billion dollars for five years (or a little north of $200 million per year, interesting figure there) to have moved the WWE Network online platform over to the Peacock streaming network.

That could be coincidental, but it sure looks easy as an outside to collect the dots that NBC-Universal was paying $200 million for NHL hockey up until 2021 and with that contract winding down, they’ve now invested about $200 million for 2021-26 to get the WWE library to their streaming outlet.

There’s also a lot of other moving pieces in play on the massive chess board of modern television. NBC is drastically shifting their sports strategy, they have announced plans that the national NBC Sports Network channel will shut down by the end of calendar 2021. This cable channel has been the home of the bulk of where they have broadcasted NHL games. NBC also has rights to Premier League soccer, but only until the end of next season. The stated plan is to move sports to another NBC-Universal owned outlet, primarily the USA Network, though in the case of soccer many more games are being shown exclusively on the Peacock streaming platform.

This is also what Khan was referencing when he mentioned the move of a wrestling program (NXT) from Wednesday night to now Tuesday night. Khan is saying that move was not made with hockey in mind, which makes sense. NBC still has the NBC Sports Channel running for the rest of 2021 and that is where hockey will be for the rest of this NHL season. Many attributed the move of wrestling away from Wednesday so that USA would have the “Wednesday Night Hockey” marquee spot available, but there is no evidence as of now that drives the wrestling move for a hockey spot they wouldn’t need for at least six more months.

NBC is at a cross roads now. Do they extend agreements to keep expensive, live action sports like hockey and soccer into the 2020’s? Both would require new contracts soon. Also from the NBC perspective, it’s interesting that their $200 million was buying them exclusive hockey rights in America up until this year, including all the Stanley Cup Final games on their family of networks. Now their price would be about the same to retain some NHL, but have to share it with ABC/ESPN and NBC would become the secondary partner. The “bang for the buck” factor for NHL is certainly gone for NBC due to the premium price Disney (ABC/ESPN parent company) has paid to the NHL.

The USA Network isn’t branded as much — other than the WWE they mostly just show syndicated re-runs of one hour dramas like Law and Order SVU all day long. That would be a weird hodgepodge of content for that channel to have hockey, soccer, wrestling and Olivia Benson.

Branding concerns for USA aside, if NBC-Universal is inching out or de-emphasizing sports more — as shuttering the NBC Sports channel would be a major step in that direction — could the NHL need a new partner for their secondary broadcast package in 2021?

That could be the case. If NBC isn’t the favorite and bows out, hockey would have to shift to negotiate with Fox and CBS to attempt to get that $200 million package sold to complete what they are looking to do with their next rights deal.

From a sports business perspective, this is a very interesting developing situation. The NHL has already cashed in an expanded their reach in a major way with their ESPN contract that will give them more exposure and money in the sports world. The B package of this TV deal is icing on the cake, but no doubt an important part of the puzzle for the NHL to round out their American national TV rights portfolio. Will the NHL/NBC relationship that has been ongoing since 2005 continue in the future? Nothing is agreed to yet, but NBC’s shifting priorities has made the decision an interesting one.

The future of where American viewers will watch hockey on national platforms will change a lot with the ESPN deal, but depending on what happens with the B package, starting this fall the landscape of hockey broadcasts could be completely different if the league and their current partner in NBC move in separate directions.