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Hockey Fans Follow Puck to New Network

NHL Returns to ESPN to Start 2021-2022 Season

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November 4, 2021
June 21, 2022
 min read

Fans of a certain age throughout the U.S. still recognize ESPN’s memorable hockey theme music within the first few notes despite live games being absent from the network from 2004 until last month. The soundtrack punctuated game broadcasts, studio shows, and highlight packages for multiple seasons spanning the 1990s and early 2000s. But with NBC Sports owning the National Hockey League’s broadcast rights from 2005 through the 2021 season, ESPN’s hockey coverage took a backseat to the NFL, NBA, MLB, and other leagues. However, after signing a seven-year deal beginning with the 2021-2022 season to become the NHL’s primary rights holder, it was time to introduce a new generation of hockey enthusiasts to the tune that so many associate with ESPN’s coverage of their favorite sport. During the 2021-2022 season, the ESPN family of networks will televise games on ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC while also presenting regular highlight shows and providing streaming options for out-of-network games on ESPN+. The new broadcast deal also includes cooperation from TurnerSports, which will air live games on Wednesdays and Sundays throughout the season. We compared broadcast returns from the first week of the 2021 season to this season’s opening week to determine how the network shift affected viewership.

Opening Week 2021 Buoyed by NBC’s Reach

The 2021 NHL season was a 56-game sprint from mid-January until early May pitting only divisional opponents against one another. Attendance was limited and plenty of precautions were taken in an attempt to prevent disruptions due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but it was a step toward normalcy after the previous season had concluded in a Canadian bubble. The puck dropped on opening night with a tripleheader on NBCSN. The first game featured the Pittsburgh Penguins playing host to the Philadelphia Flyers in an in-state battle. That game was followed by the reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning welcoming the Chicago Blackhawks to town and a Central Division clash between the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues in Denver. Each of the early games drew more than 1 million viewers, with the Flyers/Penguins broadcast leading the way at 1.15 million. The middle game had 1.06 million viewers but the late tilt fell to 731,492. The first two games were the only contests on NBCSN all week that drew more than 1 million sets of eyes. The low point came when only 337,601 fans tuned in to watch the Columbus Blue Jackets face the Detroit Red Wings. However, the Sunday matinee between Pittsburgh and the Washington Capitals on NBC reached 6.92M viewers. The network broadcast drew an audience three times larger than any other in our evaluation. It elevated the opening week’s average viewership from 742,079 on NBCSN to 1.43 million overall.

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ESPN Reunites With Loyal NHL Fans

After more than 15 years without showing a live NHL game, ESPN was eager to welcome the league’s return to its airwaves. In the days and weeks leading up to the new season, ESPN promoted the sport, aired studio shows, and regularly explained how fans could watch their favorite teams on broadcast and streaming platforms. A pregame show from Tampa, Florida, on opening night ahead of the Lightning’s opener against the Penguins commenced the network’s coverage. The pomp and circumstance surrounding ESPN’s reunion with one of North America’s most exciting leagues seemed to pay dividends, as 2.15M viewers tuned in to watch the first skate – 39% more than any other game in our study outside of the NBC broadcast. All three of ESPN’s game broadcasts during opening week surpassed NBCSN’s peak during the first week of last season, drawing at least 1.4 million viewers each. Its opening week average of 1.7 million viewers is 89% higher than NBCSN’s last season. Games on TNT have also experienced considerable success. The four opening week games on the network averaged 894,582 viewers – peaking at 1.03 million for a game between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals – a 20% increase from NBCSN’s mark.

Appealing to a New Market and Beyond

New broadcast partners are not the only novel entities on the hockey scene for 2021-2022. This season marks the debut of a new NHL franchise, the Seattle Kraken. The team made its regular season and television debut at the Vegas Golden Knights as part of ESPN’s opening night doubleheader. Despite the league’s two newest organizations facing off against each other in a late time slot, the broadcast still drew 1.4 million viewers, suggesting hockey fans in Las Vegas, the Pacific Northwest, and across the country have hockey fever already. The ESPN family of networks and TurnerSports will continue to air premier matchups and highlight emerging storylines throughout the season as a way to maintain fan interest and intensity until a new set of names is etched into the Stanley Cup next June.

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