NHL's television reach lags behind other sports, but is growing

According to an article today from Reuters, the NHL's television reach and broadcast rights fees in the U.S. lag behind those of the other three major sports (NFL, NBA, and MLB), but they do appear to be growing strongly. In particular, there is a question as to whether the growth of league-owned networks (NFL Network, NHL Network, etc.) might eventually have an impact on the fees that leagues earn from the broadcasters:

  League  Broadcast partners  Annual value of deals
  NFL  Fox, NBC, CBS, DirecTV  nearly $4.1 billion
  NBA  TNT, ESPN, ABC  $937.5 million
  MLB  TBS, Fox, ESPN, DirecTV, numerous cable
 operators, XM Radio  $900 million
  NHL   Versus, NBC  over $72.5 million

For the NHL, that $72.5 million comes from the Versus contract, and then in addition to that you have advertising revenues split with NBC (there's no up-front fee as with the other leagues).

As to the overall audience that the different broadcasters can reach, we have the following:

  Networks  Households
  Broadcasters (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC)  114.5 million
  TBS  99.1 million
  TNT   98.2 million
  ESPN  98.1 million
  Versus   75.1 million

Versus has come a long way, but there is still a significant gap relative to the rest of the pack, both in terms of households reached as well as visibility.

The interesting angle, to me, that bears watching over the next few years is the growth of the NHL Network - which, as anyone who has it knows, is Pure Chewing Satisfaction to a hardcore hockey fan. 

Network Subscribers League games aired Established
MLB Network 52 million over 52 2009
NFL Network 45 million+ 8 2003
NBA TV 18 million 96 1999
NHL Network 12-15 million 75 2007

Note: NBA TV is on target to expand distribution to 37 million subscribers by the start of next season this fall, while the NHL Network, established first in Canada in 2001, is on track for 30 million subscribers.

The question that Reuters raises here is whether the growth of league-owned networks will threaten the big broadcast fees enjoyed by the NFL, NBA, and MLB. For the NHL, those fees are relatively minor, and instead, this situation represents a growth opportunity via the NHL Network and Versus.

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