NBCUniversal has decided to cap a 16-year relationship with the National Hockey League, according to two people familiar with the matter, walking away from negotiations with the league, which is poised to triple the rights fees it collects from media companies with a new deal for a package it will launch with AT&T’s Turner Sports.
Turner will share overall rights with Disney’s ESPN, which struck a seven-year deal with the NHL in March that will give it control over a larger share of national games and other NHL properties. All told, these people suggested, Turner is likely to pay around $200 million a year for its NHL package, and ESPN is believed to be paying around $400 million — compared with the $200 million per year that NBC was paying the league for sole control of TV rights.
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Turner and NBCU declined to make executives available for comment. An NHL spokesperson could not be reached for immediate comment. The aforementioned decisions have yet to be finalized these people cautioned, and could still change. Sports Business Journal previously reported some of the details.
An NHL rights deal would represent the most significant expansion of Turner’s sports portfolio in some time. Turner shares control of rights for NCAA March Madness with ViacomCBS and NBA rights with ESPN. The WarnerMedia unit recently renewed a deal for a package of games from Major League Baseball and has been working to build out its own celebrity golf tournament called “The Match.” But with parent AT&T looking to pare down its debt, Turner has not been expected to be a buyer of big sports packages in the recent past.
Sports observers will want to see if a Turner deal with the NHL comes with any sort of streaming rights for HBO Max, the streaming video hub which has become one of AT&T’s top business priorities. HBO has in the past shown several sports programs, including Bryant Gumbel’s “Real Sports” and a talk show from legendary sportscaster Bob Costas. Aside from boxing, however, it has not been much of a broadcaster of live sporting events.
An NHL pact could buoy the fortunes of TNT, one of the nation’s biggest cable networks. The WarnerMedia outlet has thrived by building programming around its NBA telecasts and recently took steps to develop similar content around MLB games.
Executives from NBC Sports valued the unit’s relationship with the NHL. Over more than a decade, NBC has helped create new hockey franchises like the annual Winter Classic and had become so tied to the league that it was selling a good portion of its advertising inventory.
But the market for sports rights continues to rise. As more viewers choose to stream their scripted favorites, live sports telecasts are seen as a critical way for TV networks to keep the large, live audiences their advertisers and distributors crave. With that in mind, all the leagues are seeking hefty increases and new kinds of distribution in every rights deal they sign. NBC Sports continued to negotiate after ESPN’s new deal with the NHL was signed, but couldn’t see its way to signing a new NHL agreement that would have it paying a similar annual rate for a narrower set of game rights, according to the people familiar with the matter.
NBC Sports will soon have fewer demands on its production. NBCUniversal has already said it intends to shut down sports-cable outlet NBCSN by the end of 2021, and move most of its sports properties to NBC, USA and the streaming hub Peacock. Like other media companies, NBCUniversal renewed its pact with the NFL, extending its run on “Sunday Night Football.” And it recently snatched up rights to U.S. Golf Association matches previously held by Fox Corp., expanding its golf portfolio.
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