Jeff Zucker, chairman of WarnerMedia News & Sports, indicated as much during a press call with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to discuss the transaction. While terms have not been officially confirmed during the call, sources have indicated WarnerMedia paid $225 million a year for the rights. Acquiring hockey from current rights holder NBCUniversal is a milestone for the company, which last broadcast hockey when Ted Turner bought rights to Atlanta Flames games back in the 1970s.
TNT and TBS will air games from the start of the deal in the 2021-22 season, but Zucker was much more vague as to the HBO Max piece. “We’re going to figure that out now,” he said when asked for a specific timeline. WarnerMedia, which will launch an ad-supported tier of HBO Max in June, has promised for two years to deliver sports on the platform but has not revealed any details.
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“What we’re excited about in this deal is that we have that flexibility and optionality,” he said. “But it’s not imminent and it’s not going to happen this year, in this calendar year. Our emphasis in the year ahead will certainly be on TNT and TBS. In the years to come, I think you’ll see HBO Max and those digital platforms be a different part.”
Zucker won’t be at the controls when streaming is activated. He has said he plans to leave the company at the end of 2021, eight years after taking the reins at CNN.
The press release announcing the NHL deal noted that HBO Max could also simulcast some games. Exclusive broadcasts on HBO Max would be more of a litmus test for the service, which reaches 44.2 million U.S. subscribers when combined with linear HBO. Disney’s NHL rights deal, at a reported $410 million a year, includes 75 games a year streaming exclusively on ESPN+ and Hulu in addition to broadcasts on ESPN and other networks.
The addition of the NHL brings more sports to TNT and TBS, which already carry the NBA, Major League Baseball, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Asked about potentially re-branding the networks as sports destinations, especially given that scripted fare is increasingly shifting to HBO Max, Zucker said there are no immediate plans for such a move. “There’s still a very strong lineup of original programming there and this does not change that in a significant way,” he said. “Obviously, there is more sports programming, but when you look at 365 days a year and 24 hours a day, there’s still a place at TNT and TBS for scripted programming and that will continue.”
The first of three Stanley Cup Finals that Turner will air over the deal’s term, in 2023, will mark the first year that the series will be available only on cable TV since 1994. Nevertheless, Zucker expressed his belief in the potency of hockey to deliver a sizable audience. “This is part of the evolution of sports and viewing consumption and we’re confident and excited that the viewers and consumers will find it wherever it is,” he said.
From the NHL’s point of view, Bettman said the Turner and Disney deals will mean “more hockey in more places in more ways. This is extraordinarily fan-friendly.” In addition to Turner’s linear networks, he said, HBO Max and Bleacher Report “are places we are going to be moving to and that’s going to be great for our fans.”