Keeping up with the NHL, especially when it comes to watching live games, has never been made easy for UK fans. The NHL Live app did well enough for a while, but it rarely had the rights to broadcast games taking place at UK-friendly times. Premier Sports – an additional premium TV subscription – carried what the NHL app didn’t, but it also often skipped weekend games that’d be played during British waking hours.
Last season, another player entered the game, but as we’re about to explore, their entry into the UK market didn’t go swimmingly, to say the least. The 2023/24 NHL season may be the toughest to follow for British ice hockey fans in decades, but there is still a bit of time before the 10 October opening game of the season to get into the spirit of the sport.
Viaplay came, saw, and left
Viaplay entered the UK market with high hopes and great aspirations. Snapping up an extensive five-year deal with the NHL, Viaplay was going to show up to 1,400 NHL games every year across its channel on Sky – having acquired Premier Sports – and its streaming platform. This was meant to be the deal that finally made watching live NHL viable for British fans.
On 20 July, all of that seemingly came crumbling down. The platform hailing from SWE expanded too far and too quickly, they say, announcing that the Viaplay service will now be pulled from all markets other than the Nordics and Netherlands. With rights to the NHL, United Rugby Championship, Scottish Cup, La Liga, winter sports, some darts competitions, handball, and UEFA international qualifiers, there’s an attractive bundle for another company to grab.
Realistically, an established broadcaster with major sports already under agreement would be the only viable buyer for such a collection. Another standalone service with these as the live sports may appease ice hockey fans, but whether the interest is there to pay another subscription to watch a couple of games each week – many of which will clash with local sports timings – is another question. For now, the NHL rights for the UK are up in the air.
NHL should up its game globally
Due to the schedule, watching live NHL games can be very difficult in the UK. The international series – a craze that all major league sports have jumped in on – is helping to bring the NHL to Europe and promote the league on this side of the world. It’s yet to come to the UK, but without local presence on any league rosters, it makes sense. To cover for this, or even prepare for a landing, the NHL should enhance its presence through other entertainment products.
A big way that some other brands have done this is via merchandising and branded iGaming products. For example, using an online casino site, UK players can spin a range of branded slots promoting various popular TV shows and movies. However, there isn’t an NHL game in sight. In the UK, slots are a £3 billion per year sector, offering massive exposure if the game’s made to the current preferences – innovative features, high volatility and high RTP. If promoted better by the game publishers, the NHL could already have a strong UK presence in video gaming to boost its popularity.
EA Sports’ NHL series has long been the go-to way to experience ice hockey simulation. Were they to expand on the playability of European leagues and even include a playable EIHL, interest in the titular league could grow significantly. More of an emphasis on the Franchise Hockey Manager should also be made, especially when you consider the rampant success of FM in the UK. In TV, more promotion for any NHL-focused runs of All or Nothing would also help. So far, there’s just the one Toronto Maple Leafs season from 2021.
There’s still time for a rights agreement that’ll see a broadcaster show the live games with UK-friendly puck drops, but in the meantime, the NHL should perhaps consider further popularising the sport via increased promotional outings in the attractive Great British sports market.