Could Streaming be the NHL’s Next Broadcast Frontier?

NHL logo. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
NHL logo. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

Let’s go back in time to the long-ago period of fifteen years ago. Nobody knew what “streaming” was, but this company called Netflix was about to start.

Fast forward to today and “regular” tv seems to be becoming a thing of the past. Cable is going out of style, just like bell-bottom jeans, pet rocks, and the “trap” defensive style of hockey.

Controversial New York sports owner James Dolan was the latest to throw his hat in the streaming ring when his company, MSG, announced a new streaming service called “MSG+” set to begin next year.

Dolan, who owns the New York Rangers and the New York Knicks, was said to be considering spinning off control of the television stations that broadcast his team’s games as he continues to be invested in his MSG Sphere project in Las Vegas.

Could the NHL consider moving its games to streaming services?

Last year, MSG changed the name of their secondary broadcast station from “MSG+” to “MSG Sportsnet” (no relation to the Canadian channel), so it was speculated that that name would be reused for a venture such as this.

The news comes at a rather precarious time for cable sports stations. Regional sports stations under the “Bally Sports” brand could potentially go bankrupt, a situation the NHL itself admitted to keeping a close eye on.

The parent company of AT&T Sports Net plans to shut down its regional sports network business by the end of the year. Rumors are also swirling that Disney might want to spin off ESPN in a bid to gain full control of HULU. Disney’s CEO Bob Iger has denied those rumors.

Streaming sports might be the way of the future. Amazon Prime started off by gaining the broadcast rights to Thursday Night Football this past NFL season. Major League Soccer made an exclusive broadcast agreement with Apple TV starting this season.

MLS commissioner Don Garber even talked about how the league dodged the bullet of the regional sports network drama with their pre-emptive Apple deal, even if that wasn’t their motivation.

The MLS comparison is an interesting one. Soccer comes off as a niche sport in the American sports media landscape, not unlike the NHL. Some say MLS has even overtaken the NHL in popularity as it became the “fifth” major sport.

If streaming can work for MLS as it continues to grow the game, why wouldn’t it work for the NHL? Then again, the entire mission of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s hockey career has been making the sport more accessible as opposed to a regional draw.

That was one of the main tenants of the league’s current ESPN deal.

The worst-case scenario has teams losing 70% of their local media rights fees over the course of the next few years. With a number like that, we could see it impact league finances in everything from player contracts to the NHL’s fragile salary cap situation.

So far, this seems to be a uniquely American problem, as I haven’t heard of any financial hardships from our sports broadcasting friends north of the border.

Now let’s look at the cost. MSG+ raised a few eyebrows with their reported price of $30 a month. For comparison, ESPN+, which the NHL currently uses as its poster child for American streaming following its broadcast deal with ESPN, is $9.99 per month.

They also offer a slight discount at $99.99 per year if you buy it on an annual basis instead of monthly. Apple TV is $6.99 per month and Amazon Prime is $8.99 for their television service. I left Netflix out since they currently don’t broadcast live sports.

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Is Dolan ahead of the game or just looking for another revenue stream in his sports media empire? Like it or not, streaming live sports appears to be here to stay. Hopefully, regional sports networks stay around as well. No one should have to pay $30 extra a month to watch what they used to get as part of their cable bill.