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Volume 23 No. 8
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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman relishes the opportunities as next media deal approaches

The NHL already has seen interest in carrying the league’s games from both traditional linear TV networks and digital technology companies when its current deal with NBC ends following the 2020-21 season.

With two more seasons to go on the existing deal, negotiations have not started yet — not even informally. NBC has carried the NHL since 2006 and wants to keep NHL rights on its channels. Sources have said that ESPN and Fox have showed initial interest, as did Turner Sports before David Levy left earlier this spring. Sources have said the NHL has explored splitting its package among multiple networks, rather than staying on one network.

I had the opportunity to ask NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman about the NHL’s media rights deal last week at the Leaders Sport Business Summit in New York. Speaking on the record at a public event, Bettman did not give specifics on the types of conversations that he’s had — he began his answer by saying “It’s a little premature.”

But I found Bettman’s answers interesting, as he described the way his league sees the media market as he prepares to sell his rights.

SBJ’s John Ourand interviewed NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at last week’s Leaders Sport Business Summit.
Photo: leaders
SBJ’s John Ourand interviewed NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at last week’s Leaders Sport Business Summit.
Photo: leaders
SBJ’s John Ourand interviewed NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at last week’s Leaders Sport Business Summit.
Photo: leaders

“While NBC’s done a great job, yes, I’m aware of the fact that there’s a lot of interest in engaging with us, whether it’s traditional television or digital platforms,” Bettman said. “That’s something that we’re going to have the opportunity to sort out over the next year or so. In terms of what it represents for the clubs and ultimately the players who we share revenues 50-50, I think there’s going to be a nice opportunity for some meaningful revenue growth and for continuing to improve the great job that NBC is doing in terms of our coverage and promotion.”

The current NBC deal is worth $2 billion over 10 years. Coming out of a labor feud that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season, the NHL had little leverage and signed an exclusive deal with NBC that paid the league no rights fee. The two renewed that deal in 2011, with NBC committing to show every Stanley Cup playoff game nationally. That’s the deal that ends in two years.

Today, the media marketplace is radically different. With so many media companies showing interest, the NHL appears to hold most of the leverage.

As Bettman looks at the media landscape, he sees the NFL with four television partners, MLB with three and the NBA with two. I asked Bettman about the advantages of splitting the league’s rights package versus selling all the rights to one media company.

“I know that NBC goes out of their way to promote us very significantly,” Bettman said. “The question — and it’s something ultimately that everybody has to look at — is whether or not you’re better off being promoted multiple places, maybe to a lesser extent, or being centralized where people know exactly where to go look for you. That’s something that will require a fair amount of discussion as we look forward. But it is a time that presents great opportunity.”

That opportunity could extend to the digital arena, where Amazon and Twitter have showed interest in packages of live sports. Right now it seems unlikely that any tech company will be in the market for a big, exclusive package of games — at least not in the next two years.

But when I asked Bettman about the big tech companies, he touted the digital savviness of NHL fans combined with the NHL’s pace of play where games typically last two-and-a-half hours.

“In an era where people’s focus tends to get dissipated, it’s good to have a high-paced sport that moves quickly and resonates with young people,” he said.

Bettman also pointed to a six-year, $1.2 billion deal with MLB Advanced Media that he cut in 2015 that gave MLBAM control over the management and distribution of the league’s digital businesses, including its out-of-market package and NHL Network.

“We’ve always been willing to be a little bit out of the box. What flows from that longer term is a combination of premature to speculate and probably not appropriate for me to negotiate publicly at this point.”

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It appears as unlikely as ever that Bettman will allow NHL players to compete in the Olympics. When asked what needs to happen for him to change his mind, Bettman said, “What do we get back in return? Nothing. Because the IOC does not let us promote the fact that we’re there. We can’t use footage, we can’t do anything that signifies the fact that their hockey tournament is being run off of NHL players … I’ve even suggested that they give us the same rights as the TOP sponsor — not for us to sell but for us to promote ourselves the way that TOP sponsors do because we’re lending you $3-$4 billion worth of player contracts. None of that resonates.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.