Tuesday morning Hockey East announced a six-year partnership with ESPN to stream its games on the network’s streaming service ESPN+. The deal, which encompasses over 300 games, includes three games on ESPNU and a national broadcast of the league’s women’s championship on “an ESPN network.”
The move comes on the heels of a long journey for Hockey East and continues a nationwide scramble for good positioning with TV rights. It was not long ago when college hockey online streaming was, to be frank, a wasteland. Fans of the sport frequently had to purchase a streaming service costing upwards of $80 a year-and that was just for their school’s home games. Leagues, perhaps recognizing this, made a concerted effort to make their games more accessible. The Big Ten worked on making its streaming service a home for its then newly formed hockey league; Boston College even had its own deal with ESPN to stream its home hockey games.
The importance of a nationwide footprint became important as time wore on: it becomes a lot easier to recruit when players are able to see your team play. The need for a nationwide footprint became even more important with the COVID-19 pandemic. With fans shut out of hockey rinks everywhere, and families being careful with their finances amidst financial uncertainty, being able to access streaming services to watch games became even important.
Hockey East, to its credit, rose to the occasion, reaching a deal with both CBS and longtime rights partner NESN to broadcast all league games either on cable or via stream, all for free with a cable subscription. It was a perfect play to add accessibility for fans of the league nationwide.
But it was not a perfect solution. The streaming service was not without its issues. NESN’s app and online streaming platform is, to be kind, just short of unusable. CBS’ platform also was unreliable. As a member of the below-the-Mason-Dixon-Line Hockey East fandom, there were many a game that I had to get creative with because BC’s games were mysteriously absent from the CBS Sports Amazon Fire Stick app’s platform. It is also exceptionally rare, perhaps for good reason, to see college hockey regular season games on a free streaming service.
In short, the CBS platform, while a good home for a stint, was not a good long-term solution.
The league told us that with ViacomCBS and NESN expiring following the end of the 2021-22 season, Hockey East began a 16-month process to determine the best options for the league. The league wanted to maintain a presence on NESN while also increasing its national footprint.
In a phrase, signing with ESPN was the best possible outcome for Hockey East. In a world where streaming services are in a bubble, ESPN+ has quickly carved out its place as creating one of the best values for a sports streaming service available. The streaming service had already carried a number of college sports contests, including many ECAC Hockey games for a period, and with the start of the current NHL season, all out-of-network games played by the sport’s top league. Couple that with a bundle that includes Hulu and Disney+, and there is a lot of reasons why the average consumer may have already subscribed.
If that sounds like an infomercial for Disney on our site, I don’t blame you. But the reality is that the constellation of streaming services owned by Disney offers such a vast library of content that it’s hard to find comparable value elsewhere. (Maybe Peacock). And now, Hockey East has joined that library.
The digital viewing experience was a big selling point for the league. An emphasis for the process was being able to reach out to a space where existing fans were, and new fans could potentially be, while improving the quality of content the league provided. The league saw ESPN’s “extensive” hockey programming, and thought it was a good fit. The league also hinted at additional projects with ESPN and NESN as part of the deal.
Getting league games on a linear network was a big selling point as well. We were also told that a major emphasis for the league was getting the women’s championship game on a national linear network , and that was a major selling point for ESPN.
We were also told that all NESN games will be available on ESPN+ without blackout restrictions. For those who had to figure out the very clunky NESN app, that seems like a huge win.
The best thing Hockey East could have done for its brand was make it as easy to access as possible. It was the goal from the onset. After a sixteen month long process, it’s hard to argue that the league nailed it.