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Stanley Cup Final viewership nearly doubles as ESPN hopes to turn new fans into subscribers

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The NHL’s return to Disney (DIS)’s family of sports networks brought in nearly double the viewers of last year’s Stanley Cup Final, according to new data from Walt Disney Company subsidiary ESPN.

With an average of 4.6 million viewers, this year’s final — played between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche and aired on both broadcast and cable television — increased viewership by 84% year-over-year.

“We’re just very thrilled with the results,” ESPN SVP of Programming & Acquisitions Ilan Ben-Hanan, who leads ESPN’s NHL coverage, told Yahoo Finance before Game 5 (video above). “And remember, this is just year one of a seven-year deal. There's still so much more room to grow, but we're really excited about where we're headed.”

In April 2021, Disney reported ESPN+ subscribers at 13.8 million. In its most recent earnings report, the company reported the number of subscribers had nearly doubled over the past year, now sitting at 22.3 million.

Colorado Avalanche's Logan O'Connor celebrates with the Stanley Cup after beating the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final. (Photo: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
Colorado Avalanche's Logan O'Connor celebrates with the Stanley Cup after beating the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final. (Photo: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

ESPN spent a reported $2.8 billion for seven years of NHL media rights. While the increased viewership for the league is an immediate positive impact, Ben-Hanan has noted in the past, the deal and its 75 games exclusively streamed on ESPN+ were intended to drive digital subscribers rather than television ratings.

“When we look at the numbers over this whole hockey season, the NHL has been a huge part of our success,” Ben-Hanan said. “Of course, there’s been lots of other great exclusive events on ESPN+ in that time. But we certainly recognize and value that hockey fans have come to recognize ESPN+ as a home for them.”

Snatching up media rights deals has been the main driver of live sports coverage on ESPN+ since the service’s inception in 2018. The strategy has been to secure rights and flaunt products on broadcast and cable networking, then build out further content behind the subscription model.

In the last year alone, the league has launched additional or initial streaming coverage of the NHL, PGA Tour, UFC, and lacrosse’s two largest professional leagues (the National Lacrosse League and Premier Lacrosse League). On Friday, the Sports Business Journal reported ESPN paid “around $75-90 million” per year to retain F1 broadcasting rights. Some of those races will be streamed exclusively on ESPN+.

ESPN hasn’t streamed exclusive live coverage of its major properties such as the NFL, the NBA or the College Football Playoff, though, but that will change this season when the Broncos-Jaguars matchup in London on Oct. 30 is streamed exclusively on ESPN+.

Carolina Hurricanes' Andrei Svechnikov is interviewed by ESPN during the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs on May 26, 2022 at PNC Arena. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)
Carolina Hurricanes' Andrei Svechnikov is interviewed by ESPN during the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs on May 26, 2022 at PNC Arena. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

In a conversation with Yahoo Finance last month, Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of ESPN and sports content at The Walt Disney Company, said ESPN does have the rights to simulcast its Monday Night Football matchups on ESPN+. As of June 29, however, the network doesn’t have plans to stream any additional games on the platform.

“We’re continuing to evaluate things, continuing to follow the consumer, the fan,” Pitaro said. “As the fan spends more and more time on a digital or direct to consumer platform, we’ll continue to be there and be present.”

During Disney’s most recent earnings call on May 11, 2022, CEO Bob Chapek teased out the possibility of moving traditional linear sports broadcasts onto streaming, but noted moves like the NHL’s ESPN+ deal are more like “putting one foot on the dock.” In other words, the day when Stanley Cup Final isn’t just a vehicle for subscriber growth but rather exclusively streamed to subscribers doesn’t appear to be anytime soon.

“The immediate plan is to continue to invest in ESPN+ as a complementary product to ESPN linear which we continue to invest in and acquire rights for,” Pitaro said. “In terms of when we would eventually take our flagship channels direct to consumer, we don’t have a date yet.”

Josh is a producer for Yahoo Finance Live.

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