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Stanley Cup viewership soars on ESPN, ABC

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ESPN SVP of Programming & Acquisitions Ilan Ben-Hanan joins the Live show to discuss the Stanley Cup viewership on ESPN and ABC, the outlook for ESPN+ content, NHL returning to ESPN, and Formula 1's U.S. deal.

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

- The oldest trophy in North American sports could be hoisted tonight in Colorado. The Avalanche escaped for their first Stanley Cup in more than a decade, while the Tampa Bay lightning still hoping for a comeback at a third straight cup. What's behind this sudden surge in hockey viewership? Ilan Ben-Hanan is the senior vice president of the programming at ESPN, home to the Stanley Cup Finals. Nice to see you, sir. Ratings have skyrocketed, up nearly 70% in the 18 to 49 demo. What do you attribute it to, besides being on broadcast television, as opposed to cable?

ILAN BEN-HANAN: Sure, thank you so much for having me, guys. And I'm so excited to talk hockey with game five tonight. We are so fired up. Those of us at ESPN who have been hockey fans for a long time, we've been waiting for this moment. We first had the rights to the League 17 years ago. They went to some other broadcasters for a bit. And when we got the rights back this year, we promised the League, we said, we are going to do everything we can to help build this game and grow this game, whether that's our studio coverage, whether that's our game coverage, whether that's making games available on ABC, on ESPN, on our direct-to-consumer platforms with ESPN+ and Hulu. And we're just very thrilled with the results. And remember, this is just year one of a seven-year deal. There's still so much more room to grow, but we're really excited about where we're headed.

- Yeah, Ilan, kind of a two-parter for you with that, we know ESPN+ subscribers have just about doubled over the last year now. I'm curious what part of that you attribute to NHL fans coming to the platform to see those games that are only on ESPN+? And do you think moving forward, more games are gonna be exclusively on ESPN+?

ILAN BEN-HANAN: Sure. From our perspective, when we look at the numbers over this whole hockey season, the NHL has been a huge part of our success. Of course, there's been lots of other great exclusive events on ESPN+ in that time. But we certainly recognize and value that hockey fans have come to recognize ESPN+ as a home for them. You mentioned the exclusive games. We also have what's known in our world as the out-of-market package, right? The games that, if you're a displaced Pittsburgh Penguins fan who lives in LA and you have the ESPN+ package, you're getting all the Penguin games all year long. And we think that's another kind of hidden indicator and another win for the product in something that we think has really helped drive adoption and enthusiasm among hockey fans.

- And something that we've seen, obviously, with racing, we've seen the Netflix documentaries that are really, also, bringing in new fans, giving people sort of new interest. What are your expectations for hockey? Do you expect to capitalize on something like that?

ILAN BEN-HANAN: That's a great question, Rochelle, and something that we were very focused on in our conversations with the League, is this is not just about the games. It's the game around the game, it's building stars, it's storytelling. You know, just later this week, we'll be debuting a documentary under our E60 brand on the 25th anniversary of, kind of, the blood feud that is the Detroit Red Wings versus Colorado Avalanche. A little bit of a stroke of good luck that the Avalanche are here on the precipice of clinching the Stanley Cup right when we're releasing this documentary. But even if that wasn't the case, we'd be doing it. And again, it's about that kind of storytelling, connecting fans from generation to generation, and building on this really exciting game with a lot of young superstars on the rise.

- Speaking my language there, man, as a Denver native who grew up on those Avalanche-Red Wings rivalry, oh, the fights at mid-ice, between two goalies nonetheless. In particular, though, I want to ask you about the massive gains in the female hockey audience, with not many expected, depending on the network, between 50 and 70-plus percent. Why?

ILAN BEN-HANAN: Yeah. From our perspective, we've always treated sports fans as ubiquitous. We're targeting everybody. If you love sports, we're the place for you. We've seen that success with female demographics and other of our sport categories. From our research, we've done a lot that tells us that storytelling matters a lot, especially for our female audience. So, as we talked about before, trying to humanize the players. We're doing 10-minute features on Jack Hughes from the New Jersey Devils. And we think that when you start seeing guys behind-- off the ice and without helmets on, you start to humanize players. We think that really drives engagement, drives enthusiasm, and drives connection. And the results are starting to speak for themselves.

- I did want to ask you about another sport, as well, is college football. It's always right around the corner, it feels like. We're finally getting the summer, camps gonna be starting sort of soon. What is ESPN+ plus gonna do with college football this year and moving forward? Are you adding more games just to ESPN+? I know personally, I spend a lot of time on Saturdays on that ESPN app.

ILAN BEN-HANAN: Yeah, you're speaking my language. I'm a USC Trojan alum and very, very excited and enthusiastic about what's to come this fall. ESPN+ has depth and breadth when it comes to our college football coverage. So the fall is really the time where, not just ESPN+, but the entire ESPN family of networks really shines. That, for me, there's really nothing better than a college football Saturday. I fire up the Apple TV. I have four screens on the ESPN app. And I'm watching a game on ESPN, and ESPN2, and the SEC network, and the ACC network, and just kind of in heaven from morning till night.

- You just said the magic word there, Apple. Apple and Amazon now being competitors in the competition for streaming sports deals. How does that change the atmosphere?

ILAN BEN-HANAN: From our perspective, there's always competition. In the end, we're focused on serving sports fans. That's our mission, it's always been our mission. I've been at this company almost 20 years. It's been around for over 40 years. And as long as we keep our eye on that ball, we'll do just fine.

- Ilan, one other thing that we saw kind of crossing the wires in the last hour, a report here that you guys won the bid for F1 to continue that viewership and those broadcasting rights. Curious if you can comment on that at all and just what the growth of F1 has been like for ESPN as a whole.

ILAN BEN-HANAN: Well, while I don't work on that particular category, as a fan, it's just been phenomenal to see the growth of that sport. It's not just the racing, of course. It's the spectacle, it's the stories behind the drivers, and something that we're very, very pleased with. I certainly can't comment on the extension, that's outside of my purview. But I'm very enthusiastic about what we've been able to do with Formula One.

- It's interesting, in this situation, which everyone is bidding massive amounts of money for sports rights. No one's going near Saudi-backed [INAUDIBLE] Golf. Would ESPN ever touch it?

ILAN BEN-HANAN: We have a good rights deal with the PGA TOUR. We have the entire PGA TOUR Live stream that goes all season long. We have the Masters, we have the PGA Championship. Our golf portfolio is in a pretty strong place right now, and I think that's where we're comfortable.

- Ilan Ben-Hanan from ESPN, good to see you, sir, thanks. Enjoy game five, the Stanley Cup Final.

ILAN BEN-HANAN: Definitely, my pleasure. Thank you all so much.

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