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The NHL recently reached an agreement with Fox Sports for in-market streaming. Although not finalized, an agreement has been reached after negotiations spanning the course of five years. The agreement will allow in-market streaming of NHL games that are broadcast on Fox’s regional sports networks (RSNs). In order to stream a local market game on a Fox network, fans will need to have a cable or satellite subscription that includes the local RSN. Fox already holds the local media rights to 12 NHL teams: Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, and Tampa Bay Lightning.
Previously, Fox signed a similar deal with MLB to stream in-market games. The deal between MLB and Fox set the price for the streaming rights at approximately $2 million per team. Fox adds the NHL to its portfolio of in-market streaming, which currently includes MLB and the NBA.
Prior to finalizing this arrangement, Fox was involved in another negotiation with the NHL regarding rights for RSNs, giving Fox the rights to broadcast games outside of the team’s market, but within the RSN’s local coverage area—like FOX Sports Midwest, the St. Louis Blues’ local RSN, broadcasting to Kansas City.
Creating a way for hockey fans to stream in-market games is significant. In recent years, the NHL has maintained blackouts for all in-market streaming—even for those who purchased NHL Gamecenter Live. In fact, in 2012 the league was sued over in-market blackouts by disgruntled fans. The NHL imposed in-market blackouts on streams because teams were granted exclusive broadcast rights in local markets. These restrictions were put in place by the NHL to protect the television ratings of RSNs that purchased these rights. The court filings expanded on the NHL’s blackouts.
In 2015, the plaintiffs in this case were granted class-action status—allowing the consumers to act collectively against the NHL. Later that year, the NHL proposed a settlement to appease the plaintiffs: decreasing the price of the NHL’s streaming package, as well as creating a single-team package for a lower cost. Unfortunately for fans, the proposed settlement still included in-market blackouts. Although the plaintiffs could have continued to fight the NHL to remove blackout restrictions, which were acknowledged by U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin to likely be a violation of antitrust, the plaintiffs did not pursue the case further.
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In February 2016, the NHL and MLB Advanced Media relaunched the NHL’s digital properties, including Gamecenter Live, which is now NHL.tv. While this relaunch renovated the streaming service, the streams were still subject to in-market blackouts.
There have also been efforts in Congress to end in-market blackouts. The Furthering Access and Networks for Sports (FANS) Act, introduced by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) looks to provide all fans with some sort of broadcast in all market areas. In order for leagues to continue to enjoy their antitrust exemptions, a “basic obligation” of broadcast availability would have to be met. Blumenthal described why the FANS Act should be implemented.
“Special breaks should be stopped for professional sports leagues that impose anti-consumer blackout policies leaving their fans in the dark,” he said. “Leagues that enjoy antitrust exemptions and billions of dollars in subsidies and other benefits should give their fans fair access to their favorite teams on TV. This legislation would protect fans who now get the short end of the stick from leagues that treat the public with contempt while continuing to enjoy public benefits. Fans deserve to be put first—or at least treated fairly.”
Although the NHL’s arrangement with Fox only appeases fans in 12 markets, it is still an important and potentially influential moment for streaming. After dealing with multiple lawsuits regarding in-market blackouts and the looming threat of legislation like the FANS Act, leagues should be wary because it is commonly understood that most league’s broadcast arrangements are likely in violation of antitrust law. The business model of the NHL’s broadcast rights, as well as the other professional leagues, could still be challenged. However, making strides towards prioritizing the needs of fans does relieve the NHL of some pressure.
Next, the focus should shift to all leagues pursuing similar arrangements for any remaining markets and to fans without cable subscriptions looking to watch in-market games.