Will Connor Bedard help Blackhawks net favorable media-rights deals?
Winning the NHL Draft lottery couldn’t have come at a better time for the Blackhawks.
Connor Bedard, widely thought to be the best player available since the Oilers drafted Connor McDavid in 2015, is in the current draft class. He could become the next face of the franchise, the pillar of the organization’s rebuild and, most important, the best player in hockey.
And his likely arrival coincides with the final season of the Hawks’ rights agreements with NBC Sports Chicago and WGN Radio. Surely, when those executives feast their eyes on Bedard’s slick puck-handling, strong shot and smooth skating, they’ll throw wads of cash at the Hawks to air their games.
Pan to Lee Corso. “Not so fast, my friend.”
The Hawks’ cashing in on their 11.5% chance of landing the first pick certainly made everyone happy. NBCSCH aired a half-hour special after the draft order was revealed, and the cast of Pat Boyle, Colby Cohen and Charlie Roumeliotis were giddy throughout.
Bedard will be a boon for everyone. He already sent Hawks ticket sales skyrocketing, and he’ll deliver ratings and advertising sales wherever he can be seen and heard.
But Bedard alone won’t move the needle for station bosses in negotiations. It’s a nice start that builds positive momentum, but rights agreements have many parts. Frankly, live play-by-play, not specific to any team or sport, is in itself valuable programming with or without the best player playing.
Look no further than the Fire. The Major League Soccer team in town has qualified for the postseason twice since 2010 and is off to a dreadful start this season. But two weeks ago, the team announced its first agreement to air English-language radio broadcasts, which can be heard on WLS-AM (890).
Live sports are in demand because they can’t be consumed ON demand. They’re appointment viewing and listening with a built-in audience. Drafting Bedard won’t move the Hawks closer or further from renewing their rights.
On the TV side, NBCSCH continues to examine the feasibility of a direct-to-consumer product, which will be discussed during its talks with the Hawks (and the Bulls and White Sox, whose agreements also are up next year). Other regional sports networks already have entered that market, such as NESN and YES, and Marquee Sports Network is planning to, as well.
NBCSCH is showing how much it cares about the Hawks by airing the lottery special and planning extensive coverage of the draft next month in Nashville. The network is expected to send Boyle and Roumeliotis and produce lots of content. Such programming also will be discussed.
The radio business is turning into the audio business because of streaming. Listeners aren’t just tuning in from radios anymore. WGN remains a legacy brand, and the station has been a fine steward for the Hawks. But the days of traditional radio-rights deals are over.
Might the Hawks consider delivering games themselves on their app or another audio platform? They could cash in with their own DTC service. That said, radio still has pull in Chicago, and as invested as the Hawks are in delivering their own content, going it alone might be a bridge too far. Such topics figure to come up in talks.
And, of course, we haven’t even broached the financial angle.
The bottom line is this: Winning the lottery has created quite a buzz around the Hawks. But as it pertains to new media-rights deals, that’s all it is. Noise.