An ESPN Hat Trick
Bloomberg Businessweek US|June 20, 2022
Spreading hockey games across various channels and streaming services has boosted interest in the sport
By David Rocks and Rebecca Penty

For hockey fans, this year’s playoffs have been as good as it gets. After a competitive season flush with scoring, the National Hockey League’s yearend tournament has seen a half-dozen series go all the way to seven games. In almost half of the matchups, the winner has come from behind. And in one semifinal game, the Colorado Avalanche scored three times in just over two minutes, helping put the team into the Stanley Cup final against the two-time defending champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

For ESPN, which last year won the right to broadcast NHL matches through 2028, the playoffs have been equally thrilling. Games have averaged 1.1 million viewers, the company says, up 30% from NBC Sports’ broadcasts last season. Subscribers to the ESPN+ app, which also airs the NHL, have climbed 62% in the past 12 months, to 22.3 million, after years of anemic growth for the $7-a-month service that includes more than a dozen sports. Hockey has been a “significant” part of the recent bump, says ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro.

ESPN’s experience illustrates that even as couch potatoes watch less broadcast television and spend more time on streaming services, there’s still value to good ol’ TV. The trend is toward content spread across multiple channels, with marquee events such as the Super Bowl, World Series, and Stanley Cup on network television, a limited number of games on cable, and the majority streaming. That strategy will let media companies boost subscriptions to their streaming services without alienating cable-TV distributors, says Daniel Cohen, a media rights consultant with Octagon in New York. “We’re going to see this model for the next five to seven years until streaming matures,” he says.

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