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Hockey Fight in Canada: The Big Media Faceoff Over the NHL

by David Shoalts

The formula for producing a Hockey Night in Canada ratings bonanza is relatively simple. In the best-case scenario, all six of Canada’s National Hockey League franchises make the Stanley Cup playoffs, capped by a seven-game final involving the golden goose of them all, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Rogers Communications, which coughed up an eye-popping $5.2 billion in 2013 for the exclusive Canadian rights to televise NHL hockey for 12 years, can tinker all it likes with hosts and sets and cameras affixed to the helmets of referees, but the rate of their return on that investment depends largely on the Leafs getting better.

Hockey Fight in Canada: The Big Media Faceoff Over the NHL, by veteran Globe and Mail sportswriter David Shoalts, offers a minutely detailed view of how Rogers’s Sportsnet cable network unexpectedly snookered both Bell Media and the CBC when the NHL’s Canadian TV rights came up for renewal in 2013. The book, while undoubtedly of interest to media geeks, will seem a bit of a chore for puck heads more in tune with colourful on-air personalities such as Don Cherry than number-crunching corner-office types like former Rogers president Keith Pelley, who brokered the deal with clear-eyed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

Much of Rogers’s success, as Shoalts explains it, was due to the smugness of its two rivals. The seemingly clueless CBC, guided by a sense of entitlement, expected to retain a significant portion of the rights if only because that’s how things had been since the advent of televised hockey in 1952. Bell’s TSN, while owning a smaller piece of the pie, aimed to supplant the increasingly cash-strapped public broadcaster, only to be outfoxed by a smaller upstart. In the end, Sportsnet’s multi-game, multi-platform vision of the future more closely aligned with Bettman’s.

Sportsnet also got to divvy up scraps to its defeated foes. The nearly two-million viewers who continue to watch the Leafs on HNIC every Saturday don’t yield a cent in advertising revenue for the CBC. It all goes to Rogers, which, adding insult to injury, also took over office space in the CBC’s broadcast centre.

Shoalts’s account of the boardroom machinations behind the deal is informative but prosaically procedural. Sometimes wryly, the author examines why it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Rogers. In the first season revamp, Cherry chewed up some of his reduced air time complaining about the reduction of his air time. More damaging yet was the failed anointment of hipster icon George Stroumboulopoulos as Ron MacLean’s replacement, a move reversed two years later.

Even so, ratings were up slightly in Rogers’s first season. And Strombo might have survived if the second year hadn’t been torpedoed by the failure of the rebuilding Leafs – or a single other Canadian franchise – to make the playoffs. Happily for Rogers, the Leafs, with the help of budding superstar Auston Matthews, might be on the path to claiming Toronto’s first Stanley Cup in more than 50 years. If that happens in the negotiated time frame, the suits at Rogers will look like geniuses.