What the NHL/ESPN Deal Means for Teams Like the Nashville Predators

Mar 9, 2021; Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Nashville Predators left wing Filip Forsberg (9) skates with the puck against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 9, 2021; Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Nashville Predators left wing Filip Forsberg (9) skates with the puck against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports /

For those who may not be aware, one of the fastest growing sports for both youth in the United States, and the age 18-29 content demographic in North America, is about to get even more exposure, and that includes our beloved Nashville Predators.

Yep, the NHL is returning to the ESPN/Disney networks (ESPN and ABC) and services for the first time since the Stanley Cup Final in 2004.

What this means for not only the game of hockey, but teams like the Nashville Predators, cannot be understated, and there are many reasons why.

Let’s break down the news between the NHL and the House of Mouse.

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All About the Benjamins

The deal is valued at $400 million annually and runs for the next seven years, equating to roughly $2.8 billion in revenue for the league.

For full context, the current deal for NBC and the NHL is about $200 million annually. Overnight, the league will double its broadcast revenue, and it’s just getting started. This means teams, including the Nashville Predators, will see the salary cap grow as well.

The deal with Disney/ESPN doesn’t lock the NHL into just utilizing the House of Mouse’s family of networks, and they will be able to shop other potential network partnerships for certain events and games, though the Disney family of networks will get first crack at things like the All-Star Skills Challenge, All-Star Game, and part of the Stanley Cup Playoffs as well as the Stanley Cup Finals.

The NHL still has mobility to utilize other networks similar to ways the NFL does – think something along the lines of “Thursday Night Hockey on NBC”.

Even the MLB is limited to Turner Networks and ABC/ESPN, and the NBA is much the same, also relying on Turner Networks and ABC/ESPN. I imagine NBC will still want to host some games on its networks, though the dissolving of the NBC Sports Networks helped to precipitate this move.

On top of having mobility to grow and extend its brand, the NHL will be able to broaden its audience and increase revenue streams for teams through these incredibly lucrative deals.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a move made in haste, and it isn’t one being done to simply offset the losses of the 2019-2020 and 2021 season with no fans in the stands. This is a long-term money-move to grow the game and the league’s brand.

Streaming and Reach

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen on social media the frustration of fans who have “cut the cord” so to speak, myself included, and couldn’t get access to the games through the Regional Sports Networks (RSNs) like Fox Sports regional networks, on the largest streaming platforms including Hulu, YouTubeTV, Sling TV, Fubo, and others.

Sinclair Media Group who own the RSN’s, and will soon be rebranded from “Fox Sports (insert region)” to “Bally Sports (insert region)”, asked a price that platforms were unwilling to pay in new contract negotiations, as it would result in raising the cost to/on consumers.

It has been incredibly frustrating as it has lessened the reach of the game for so many local and regional audiences, not only for the NHL, but also for the NBA and MLB.

For hockey fans, that’s all about to change.

The work around to the RSN issue has been to get an NHL.TV membership, where depending on the time of year you purchase, you can by an all-access pass that lets you watch all “out-of-market” games usually anywhere between $125.99-$150, or a team-specific pass for between $79.99-$99.99. Now those games are all moving to the ESPN+ platform.

With ESPN+, it costs $6 per month, or $60 annually. In addition to this, you can bundle ESPN+ with Disney+ and Hulu for $19.99. I know many who already have one service or the other, so this is a win-win in many aspects. You pay less per month/annually to watch out-of-market games via ESPN+ and get additional sports content including new original programming the NHL is currently developing, and/or you take streaming services you’re likely already subscribed to and add more sports content into your mix.

This, in many ways, will help with ad-revenue loss, as more companies will strive to advertise via ESPN+ and other platforms, and with the current RSNs hamstrung by Sinclair Media Group, the reach of the game is about to be exponential.

As a fan who has lived in Nashville, then Louisville, and now Cincinnati, I can tell you the Nashville Predators’ reach is far and wide, so having another way to see the games that is familiar is a huge win for fans not only in Smashville, or the state, but really the southeastern region.

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Nashville Predators and the House of Mouse

For many years, the Nashville Predators were (and still are in some parts/platforms), referred to as a “small market team”. However, this changed in a BIG way with the 2017 Stanley Cup run, and 2017-2018 Presidents Trophy Season. Following the run of success the Nashville Predators have been on, Bridgestone Arena became the place to be, when it comes to seeing an NHL game.

Even with the downturn in the product on the ice, this will still be the case when more fans can return to the stands.

In addition to the fan experience, the team has positioned itself very well in terms of brand-strategy. Say what you want about the team on the ice (or the coaching/management), but the people off the ice charged with growing and developing the Nashville Predators brand have created something truly special, engaging to the fans, and notable in major sports.

In a city that ranges between one of the top 5 to top 10 fastest cities in the United States, Nashville is no longer simply a “small market”, and neither are its teams.

The NHL’s bold move to work with Dinsey/ESPN/ABC allows for brands already well positioned for growth like the Nashville Predators to only grow further. Imagine seeing young stars like Filip Forsberg and Eeli Tolvanen in prime-time, or seeing them more prominently displayed in highlight reals on the biggest platform for sports.

A team like the Predators having the potential to have games on ESPN, ABC, ESPN+, as well as NBC and the RSNs, in a single year, is HUGE in terms of fan reach, especially for a sport that’s one of the fastest growing in youth demographics in terms of content consumption for the ages of 18-29.

According to USA Hockey, the number of American youth participants hasn’t taken a dip since 2012, and has steadily risen especially as the women’s game grows. This, along with casual fans being able to learn the game quickly, the speed of the game, and the intensity, make leagues like the NHL primed to grow, and teams like the Nashville Predators, primed to grow with it.

Big Moves Ahead for the Game

Hockey can be easily consumed, the games don’t last too long (unlike the MLB, and even sometimes the NFL), and if games go into overtime, thing only picks up in terms of intensity. The play on the ice is fast-paced and action-packed, and the sport has everything a league would want to appeal to Millennials and Gen-Z.

The House of Mouse is about to help the game take a tremendous step forward, and teams like the Nashville Predators stand to benefit in a big way in terms of revenue, brand growth, exposure, and fan engagement.

We all know the Nashville Predators have one of the best fanbases in all of professional sports, and we’re about to get the chance to consume the game in ways like never before, while bringing on fans old and MANY new, along for the ride.

What you can do leading up to the move to ESPN is explain the game to friends, and get them in on the action. The next several years are going to be a LOT of fun for all hockey fans, and the NHL and ESPN as partners, are a big reason why.