The NHL Made a $600 Million Decision That the League Hopes Will Lead to NBA-Level Growth

The NHL is at a watershed moment. After a decades-long slump including a lockout season and 2020 pandemic bubble, things are trending in the right direction for the first time since Wayne Gretzky dominated the ice. With the league moving away from NBC and on to Disney and Turner broadcasts, the NHL could be due for similar growth to the NBA in the ’80s. 

The NHL’s ‘whole new world’ at Disney

Winnipeg Jets players look on from the bench as they watch a tribute video for teammate Paul Stastny
Winnipeg Jets players on the bench | Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images

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After nearly 20 years at NBC/Universe, Variety reports the NHL recently reached a deal with ESPN in what’s sure to help expand its umbrella and bring in fans who keep the channel on with hopes of finding something new.

ESPN doesn’t just involve the network and its sister channels. It means that games can broadcast on Disney-owned ABC. ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro said of the new partnership:

We know the power of the NHL and are thrilled to welcome it back as a significant new pillar across our platforms, and we look forward to connecting more deeply and directly with some of the sports world’s most passionate fans.

The league is also excited to expand its horizons. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement about the move from NBC to the worldwide leader in sports:

Not only will this groundbreaking, seven-year deal enable the NHL to benefit from the incomparable power, reach, and influence of The Walt Disney Company and ABC/ESPN, it sets a new standard in delivering our game to the most passionate and tech-savvy fans in sports in the ways they now demand and on the platforms they use.”

Inside the NHL

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On top of that, the league also secured another sports powerhouse. Turner Sports has built up a resume with its sports coverage on TBS, TNT, CBS, HBO Max, and Bleacher Report. When the NHL sought a new partnership away from NBC, Turner Sports jumped at the opportunity to bring hockey into the fold.

Bettman spoke about this on the NHL’s website. He stated that Turner puts “a fun and innovative factor into all of what they do, and we’re excited to have that same treatment for our sport and for our fans… We love the reach of their linear networks,”

This could be the most lucrative move the NHL has made in decades. While big with its passionate fan base, the NHL has failed to match the NFL, NBA, and MLB for years. 

With two national broadcast partners for the first time since 1999 and an exciting slate of up-and-coming talent, the NHL has a chance to reach the kind of growth that the NBA did in the ’80s. If it does, nothing will ever be the same. 

The Michael Jordan effect 

According to Bleacher Report, the NBA of the early 1980s slowly rose in status. It had merged with the ABA and introducing stars like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Before that, the league had a niche following in large cities thanks to superstars like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But its international appeal was minimal, at best. Then, Michael Jordan came. 

Everyone wanted to see Michael Jordan, and with it, the entire league began to grow around him. By 1992, the Dream Team took to Barcelona. The NBA was officially an international juggernaut thanks to the widespread broadcasts that were now shown live across the world to people in Europe, Asia, and Africa. 

The NHL could be at this moment. While Connor McDavid and other young stars delighting fans around the world already, the league has two industry giants getting ready to show their games and a sport that already hits well around the world. Add the internet, and it’s safe to say that the league’s best days are yet to come.