Blackhawks players excited by NHL airing on ESPN, TNT/TBS next seasonon May 7, 2021 at 11:30 am

On nights when he’s not playing a game himself, Blackhawks defenseman Nikita Zadorov might be watching another NHL game.

Or he might not be. He has to balance his love for hockey while avoiding an overload.

“In the playoffs, I watch lots of games, for sure,” he said. “When it’s on NBC, definitely it’s easier to watch. Sometimes when I’m on the road or I’m eating, I turn it on [on] my phone.”

But the NHL won’t be on NBC or NBCSN starting next season. The league announced a new seven-year “A” package contract with ESPN in March, then a “B” package contract with Turner Sports, which airs games on TNT and TBS, in April.

That’s an exciting change for Zadorov and other Hawks, who are fans in general when their team isn’t involved. ESPN and Turner will put the NHL on more popular, more widely available platforms.

“It’s the right decision because ESPN is the biggest sports platform in the United States, probably the world,” Zadorov said. “It’s definitely a step forward for us to sell the game. We’re going to bring more people, more population to watch [us]. And it’s a big step up with the money as well for us, which is going to help us in the future with the next [collective-bargaining agreement].”

The money is undoubtedly the biggest positive from a league-business standpoint. The NHL will net $645 million annually from ESPN and Turner, plus another roughly $400 million annually from its ongoing Rogers/Sportsnet contract in Canada. It previously received less than $300 million annually from its contracts with NBC and Disney (for online streaming).

The increased TV revenue will balance the books after a devastating financial year and help the salary cap rise again — although that isn’t expected for another year or two.

“It’ll be good to get some freshness after the year we all had with COVID and everything,” Hawks forward Brett Connolly said. “It’ll be different, but hopefully it’s an advantage, which I think it will be.”

Only the Hawks’ national broadcasts — not the local ones on NBC Sports Chicago — will be affected by the change, and they’re unlikely to be on national TV any more than before. NBC and NBCSN planned to air 109 regular-season NHL games nationally each of the last two seasons. The new contract gives ESPN 25 and Turner 72, for a total of 97 over a longer season. Every playoff game will continue to be nationally televised. (All other games will be streamed online out-of-market on ESPN+.)

The most anticipated changes may be outside the game broadcasts themselves. Turner’s NBA studio shows, such as “Inside the NBA,” are known for their fun and lighthearted (but still informative) approach, which could carry over to similar NHL studio shows. And Turner also plans to use affiliates Bleacher Report and HBO Max for additional content. ESPN, through “SportsCenter” and other shows, knows how to market superstars.

Essentially, the NHL has seen the NBA’s popularity explosion in the social-media age and hopes to follow the same path.

“I can’t wait to see Shaq breaking down our games,” Zadorov joked.

NBC, although consistent with its NHL broadcasts since 2006, was often too serious, stagnated over time, stubbornly kept around unpopular commentators and didn’t highlight individual stars as much as it could have.

The Hawks’ final game this season, Monday night against the Stars, will be their last on NBCSN.

“NBC has done a good job. It’s been a long relationship,” Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton said. “But certainly ESPN has a huge platform. And TNT as well — they’ve got a lot of experience with big-time sports, so it’ll be interesting to see what they do with it. Hopefully we can all work together to build the game.”

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