The NHL is bringing back its docuseries, “Quest for the Cup” for the seventh consecutive season, but for the first time, it’ll be a complete in-house production by NHL Original Productions.
In the past, the NHL has subcontracted and worked with other production companies to produce the majority of the show. This season the league is handling all of the production and background filming in-house.
Steve Mayer, the NHL’s Chief Content Officer, said over the past six seasons they’ve been building a team and the internal staff for this type of undertaking and heading into the 2022 Playoffs, it made subcontracting no longer necessary.
“We’ve gone from five people in 2016, to now we have 40 or 45 people in-house to work and produce this,” Mayer said. “The hope was that we would be able to eventually produce that kind of high-quality program, and now we have the people and the staff to do so.”
Mayers said success when it comes to running league events helped start the motivation for internal production, and it’s also been important to grow that arm of the NHL offices after many of the elements of Disney Streaming Services — previously BAMTech — are once again back under the league umbrella of responsibilities.
For example, the NHL recently got more control back of its own YouTube channel from Disney Streaming Services, and NHL Original Productions wants to use the channel for more original content as opposed to simply being an archive of highlights and replays from programs.
Mayer also hinted at another original show in the work from NHL Original Productions, but wouldn’t give any further details at this time.
As far as the “Quest for the Cup,” the series will be streamed again on ESPN+, the first episode comes out Friday but is expected to get a much larger push in marketing this spring since ESPN is also carrying the games themselves. Mayer noted that ESPN will have access to NHL Original Production programming for ancillary ESPN programs, like The Point.
“They had that access to it in the past, but they didn’t have the programming to air it or show it on TV before,” Mayer said. “So, you’ll see it integrated more into their programming.”
Mayer also said the series, like ones in the past, always has certain ideas heading into it, but remains largely unscripted with the unpredictable nature of playoff hockey.
“That show and how it takes flight and where it ends up is always so unique,” Mayer said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the access that the teams give us. The following of the greatest playoff in all of sports and giving our fans that inside glimpse on the ice or off the ice.”
Mayer said it’s been easier this spring to build off-ice features and get team access than in 2021 because COVID protocols are less strict and teams are more flexible to work with the league because of that. For lack of a better word, this is the first time the show has really felt “normal” in a couple of years after the COVID-impacted playoff in 2020 and 2021.
For example, NHL Original Productions has already shot off ice features with Devon Toews and Jonathan Huberdeau, which Mayer said probably wouldn’t have been possible last season. Those clips were originally slated for the first episode, but with five Game 7s in the first round, those features may move into the second or third episode of the show.
Mayer is the NHL’s point person on each of the main events — outdoor games, all-star games, you name it — and has also been using this spring to prep for the first in-person NHL draft since 2019.
“We are looking forward to that one,” Mayer said. “I know that the teams are excited about making their way to Montreal, we are changing the set design and the look of the draft a bit. I think that’s pretty cool.”
Mayer indicated that the NHL will be leaning hard into the location in Montreal, enlisting NHL Quebec alumni as part of the draft, maybe even announcing some picks, and working on a tribute to Guy Lafleur.
Monday was an off day on the NHL calendar between Round 1 and 2 of the playoffs, so it fits well for Mayer to focus on future things. He was touring a stadium for a potential future NHL outdoor game, when asked where he declined to share that information.
Disney, the NHL, and streamers
Last week, Disney held its second quarterly earnings call, announcing that it now has 22.3 million subscribers for its ESPN+ platform.
That’s a million subscriber uptick since the start of 2022, and a sharp hike from the 13.8 million subscribers ESPN+ had at this point in 2021.
For the NHL and its teams, it was cause for celebration and a sign that the league made a smart decision when it moved its out-of-market package from NHL.tv — which had been already run by Disney streaming on the backend — to ESPN+ as part of a new national broadcasting deal.
To add some important context, of those 22.3 million subscribers most are not watching NHL games. Many, frankly, aren’t using the service at all, and are simply subscribed to it as part of a bundle with Disney+ or signed up once and haven’t used it in months — subscription services, like gym memberships, make bank on the non-users.
Based on NHL television ratings, which have improved this season, we also know where hockey stands in the American sports landscape when it comes to viewership. For example, the Winter Classic drew 1.32 million viewers this season, so to assume that multiple millions regularly watched out-of-market games on ESPN+ is a stretch that not even Andrei Vasilevskiy would attempt.
That is fine because, for the NHL, the ESPN+ element of the deal with Disney was about the potential and testing of a new system. Numbers were never made public, but it’s believed the NHL had less than a million subscribers for NHL.tv. From a business perspective moving from a platform of less than a million potential viewers to one with at least 22 times is a major win for the league.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to apply real numbers to what went from potential to actual viewership. Disney has a rather staunch policy on not releasing streaming numbers on anything, even some of the leagues that have deals with ESPN, like the PHF, don’t know how many viewers their games get within the ESPN+ platform.
However, sources have confirmed that the NHL has not only met, but in some cases surpassed, expectations when it comes to streaming and subscription-driving power that ESPN was hoping for when it secured the deal. Based on our own very unscientific research, social media, it’s also abundant that there is a large swath of fans that watched more out-of-market games this season because of ESPN+, even if they had subscribed to the service for another sport like soccer or UFC.
One of the biggest hockey-related drivers of subscriptions, once again proven un-scientifically, were the ESPN+ and Hulu exclusive national games, which could only be streamed. Fans were frustrated, I heard many of those complaints, but many also decided that even while potentially grumbling they would sign up and find the game on the streaming service.
It’s a reality that only emboldened ESPN and Disney’s long-term visions as this will become the norm for other sports in North America. In October an NFL game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Denver Broncos will be an ESPN+ exclusive, ESPN officials already know that there will be blowback leading up to that game, but with any expected public frustration on Twitter, subscriber counts will also, albeit quietly, on the rise.
One of the crazy things about all of this is that the NHL’s streaming setup for national games isn’t that difficult compared to what’s happening right now with Major League Baseball, which now has exclusive national streaming games on both Apple+ and Peacock.