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NHL business notebook: How much more accessible will NHL games be with Bally Sports+?

For fans — and teams for that matter — that have struggled with the fallout of Bally Sports’ regional networks and their carriage issues, some good news came this week.

The down side? It’s going to come at an additional cost for the consumer.

The Bally Sports RSNs, which are owned and operated by the Diamond Sports Group and a subsidiary of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, own the regional broadcast rights for a dozen American NHL teams, including the Detroit Red Wings and Florida Panthers, who recently re-upped with Sinclair this season.

Because of carriage disputes, it’s not easy to find these channels if you don’t have DirecTV or Spectrum. Streaming services like YouTube TV and Sling used to carry the Bally RSNs, but have since dropped them, and Dish Network hasn’t carried the RSNs since 2019. When it comes to streaming games on a Bally RSN, the only option at this point is DirecTV Stream.

Out of both design and necessity, Diamond Sports Group has been angling to create its own direct-to-consumer solution, which it announced will be called Bally Sports+ on its quarterly call. The service is expected to have a soft launch this quarter and will come with an annual fee of $189.00 or $19.99 per month.

There are a couple of key clarifiers for hockey fans hoping to use this in the future.

Bally Sports+ will only be an in-market streaming service. If you live in St. Louis, for example, you will be able to use it to stream St. Louis Blues games (and Cardinals games for that matter), but it will not be a solution to stream out-of-market games that are also on Bally-branded networks.

Games that are on Bally Sports+ will be blacked out ESPN+ in the market, just like they are now because of traditional RSN programming. Games that are on national TV or national exclusive streaming, like the ESPN+/Hulu ones, will not be available on Bally Sports+.

If you only have a television subscription for hockey in a Bally market, we are close to a world where you can truly cut the cord to watch every game. Between Bally Sports+ and ESPN+, with a cost of around $28 per month combined, you’ll be able to watch nearly all of a team’s regular season games.

Unfortunately, there still isn’t a way to directly stream TNT or ESPN games without a television login. So, for the Blues fan we used as an example before, the combo of Bally Sports+ and ESPN+ would get them the majority of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs, but they would still have to buy a television subscription to watch the second round of the playoffs.

If the Blues were to hypothetically reach the conference finals and the Western Conference finals are on ESPN, which is still to be determined, the games would be simulcast on ESPN+. However, if TNT ends up with the Western Conference finals, there would be no streaming option without a TV subscription.

So, even with the addition of another streaming service, finding a spot to watch every game, legally, under one umbrella still remains incredibly difficult and virtually impossible in some places.

Neutral site games?

In the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs got approval this week to pursue and host neutral site games outside of their market in both Mexico and in Austin.

The games in Mexico are similar to the NHL approach of playing games internationally, which the league will do next season in Finland and Czechia. Many of the NHL outdoor games are also neutral site tilts, like the games in Lake Tahoe and the Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Buffalo Sabers in Hamilton back in March.

But what about neutral site NHL games in the United States or Canada and indoors?

It’s not a foreign concept. Between 1992 and 1994 the NHL played 50 neutral site regular games, some of those markets were used as test markets for future NHL relocation or expansion — like Dallas and Phoenix — while others effectively served as another home game for a more traditional market — the Florida Panthers “hosted” the Maple Leafs in Hamilton.

The league also toyed around with neutral site games as it looked for solutions to completing seasons in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic before deciding to bubble up in 2020 and stuck with home arenas for the 2021 playoffs.

I reached out to multiple NHL executives to get their thought on the concept this week, and many effectively shot down the idea as a regular season possibility.

One team executive pointed to the fact that because of the growth of the league, there isn’t a need to test new markets for expansion. In fact, they went as far to say they’d expect to see an NHL team based in Europe before they saw the 33rd team based in North America. Another common point of contention came down to the logistics, and whether it would be financially worthwhile for a team to host a game somewhere else and keep their season ticket holders happy.

Essentially it would have to be a league initiative run like outdoor games or international games for teams to jump on board. NHL teams that serve as the home team at those events have a home date bought by the league, so financial gain or risk is taken on by the league and not the individual franchises.

Playing neutral site preseason games, however, is something that teams have and will continue to do. In fact, it’s something that certain teams are more than willing to embrace if they can find a host that’s willing to take on some of the costs, which is what happens each year when an NHL preseason game is hosted in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

It hasn’t been announced yet, but the Chicago Blackhawks are expected to play some preseason home games in neutral venues this fall. It’s a move that lines up well with the fact Chicago recently told season ticket holders they would no longer be required to buy preseason games as part of their season ticket package.

Editor’s Note: Earlier, the story incorrectly stated that Chicago would play most if not all of their preseason games at neutral site venues. According to the Blackhawks, there will be games at the United Center.

(Top photo: John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

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