Thursday, March 3, 2016

How Rogers Is Ruining Hockey for an Entire Generation of Canadians

The only good news is it's not too late to fix it.

As we approach the end of the second year of the historic 12-year, 5.2 billion dollar deal between the NHL and Rogers/Quebecor for TV rights in Canada, one has to look back at how Rogers is stacking up compared to the good old days of hockey before “The Deal”. Long story short: unlike their fancy new set, it ain’t pretty.
First of all, "The Deal" didn’t start off well: many Canadians felt concern that hockey would move away from what has traditionally been successful: Saturday night and playoff games available on CBC (available to all) and move towards Rogers-based pay channels (available to some). Public opinion polls like the one below had about 50% of Canadians not supporting the new NHL-Rogers deal.
To appease the crowd, from the beginning Rogers and CBC embarked in a bizarre partnership: CBC would still showcase Saturday night games as before, but Rogers would choose the lineup, produce and reap any advertising revenue from the games. This arrangement is good for the first four years of the 12-year term of “The Deal”, and it’s not sure if it will be renewed. To be honest, it’s hard to see what was in this deal for the CBC besides not having to bother airing programming that competed against Saturday night hockey. It has yet to be seen whether this will be a long-term arrangement or a simple intermediate step to alleviate the transition to a soon-to-be full Rogers offering (similar to the Saturday night French language hockey simulcasts between RDS and the SRC from 2002 to 2004).

For Rogers, year one of “The Deal” ended with lower ratings than expected. Instead of increasing by 20% as projected, ratings stagnated, and then dwindled. Ad rates were dropped this year after Rogers failed to hit its audience targets last season, but there was hope of a bounceback. Yet as this month closes out and with no Canadian teams in the playoff picture, it’s hard to stay optimistic if you’re expecting a sophomore windfall of good news at the Rogers camp.

So what’s that you say? NHL hockey ratings are down? In Canada?? It almost sounds unheard of…. Impossible! Yet it’s true. So besides the prospect of no Canadian teams in the playoffs for the first time in 40 years, how and what did Rogers do to screw up a Canadian golden goose of TV success so royally? Let’s take a look below at some key mishaps:

Dude, where’s my team?
The most maligned aspect of Rogers’ bungling treatment of Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday is the so-called flex-scheduling. Flex scheduling has caused some bizarre scenarios these past two seasons including hockey games being shown on non-sports channel FX, Citytv and CBC simulcasting the exact same game and prominent Canadian teams being used as bait on the subscription-only SportsNet family instead of CBC or Citytv, where most hockey fans expect to find a Saturday night game. What’s worse of all is fans have no idea on what channel their team is playing until they’ve scoured through the program guide and it usually involves subscribing to multiple Rogers pay channels to ensure you will see all games of your favorite team (hello Winnipeg Jets and Ottawa Senators fans). If getting more Rogers channels into the TV packages of Canadians was the plan, it’s backfiring miserably and at the expense of the NHL.

Ratings are down across the board for most NHL games, and Rogers seems oblivious as they blame everyone else: from (a) the way ratings are calculated to (z) the poor play of the hockey teams themselves. What is more alarming is that with this new flex schedule format the numbers are showing Canadians are watching less NHL hockey. What’s worse than just the numbers? It's what they mean is actually going on in the households of Canadians, namely: a whole new generation is following hockey rather than watching it.

When growing up, everyone would tune into CBC on Saturday night to watch their local team. It was automatic. The day after or on Monday morning at school/work, no matter who you talked to, they had seen the game and would discuss every highlight, lowlight and controversial call with you. That has changed drastically in the past two years. Looking at my own children this season and last, they simply have tuned out the Saturday night holy tradition of having HNIC on CBC tuned in on the TV. We don’t have all the necessary SportsNet channels in our household and have no plan on getting them. Instead, my children are learning to follow hockey live (on social media) rather than watch it on TV. They watch almost-live videos posted via their team’s websites and fanbase social media accounts of key plays. There are dozens of in-game commentaries being uploaded in discussion forums accessible from their smartphones. And for live-play-by-play, they’re happy having the radio on the background while they play Xbox. Rogers isn’t just ruining watching hockey for me and my old fogies, they’re changing it for an entire new generation of Canadians growing up.

How to fix it:

Rogers needs to realize that Canadian don’t simply like watching NHL hockey; they like watching their local NHL teams. So the first thing to do is ensure each local CBC TV affiliate shows their local team via a simulcast of the game's SportsNet feed. Canadians expect to tune into their local CBC station on Saturday night and see their local hockey team hitting the ice. People in Montreal have no interest in seeing the Leafs take on the Blue Jackets. Ottawa and Winnipeg have had hardly any exposure on the national networks this year. Asking fans to scour for their team on B-rate channels like SN360 is ridiculous for a Saturday night game. Simulcast the local teams on their respective CBC affiliate and people will tune in.

As for Citytv and their 7PM Saturday night game, there’s no clear answer on this one. Citytv could drop the game altogether and bring back the Sunday night game (see Hometown Hockey below), or they could show a national interest game that does not involve Canadian teams but would still be worthy to watch (think Stamkos, Crosby, Toews). At least this way if there is a blowout on CBC or if the local game isn’t interesting, the causal hockey fan has a channel to flip to.   

The Sunday Night Hockey Game

Hometown Hockey debuted on Citytv in the first season of the Rogers deal. A nationally televised Sunday night hockey game came as a pleasant surprise to many Canadians, especially given the community feel given to the night as the Rogers mobile broadcast studio visited communities from coast to coast, marked with festivities and much fanfare. Rogers finally got something right and many felt a new family and community-oriented Canadian hockey tradition was starting. Don't get me wrong; I liked it and watched it with my family - when it was on Citytv.

So for season two, what did Rogers do? Sunday night's Hometown Hockey was moved from Citytv to Sportsnet in hopes of boosting ratings and subscribers to the pay channel. Instead, the opposite occurred with a 30 percent drop in viewers from its inaugural year. Rumour is now the very concept of a Hometown Hockey game on Sunday nights is in jeopardy.

How to fix it:
Easy solution is to move the game back to Citytv where the formula worked before, or even CBC for that matter. If Rogers is serious about building a new hockey tradition, you don’t put something like that on a pay-only channel. The viewers have spoken, will Rogers listen?

Marquee Games like The Winter Classic

The Bridgestone Winter Classic this year was a marquee event for the NHL in Canada and for NHL Canadian sports coverage: it had a coveted timeslot at 1PM on New Year’s Day, when everybody is either together with family or nursing a hangover in front of the TV after lunch. On top of that, a perfect original six matchup for hockey fans north of the border: the Boston Bruins took on their dreaded rivals the Montreal Canadiens, teams with enormous history and a rabid fan base to match. The last time a Winter Classic US/Canada original six confrontation happened in 2014 with Toronto taking on Detroit, CBC set records with almost 4 million viewers, the highest ever for a non-playoff game. An easy ratings homerun for Rogers, right? Wrong.

So what exactly did Rogers do to bungle what should have been an easy Canadian ratings slam-dunk? Well, instead of broadcasting the outdoor game on CBC as done in the past (and as per Hockey Night in Canada tradition dating back to the first Heritage Classic outdoor game in Edmonton), for the first time ever it parked the game on Sportsnet. Problem is, not everybody has Sportsnet in their TV package and no one in their right mind would subscribe to watch for just one marquee game, meaning casual holiday-season TV sports viewers in Canada couldn’t just flip channels and tune in. On top of that, someone at Rogers head office failed to realize (or chose to ignore) that NBC in the US was broadcasting the game, meaning people with even the most basic of cable package (or people with an over-the-air antenna within range of the US border like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal) could watch the game anyways. The results were disastrous.
Sportsnet did not yet disclose its ratings for the 2016 Winter Classic but the silence and lack of this type of disclosure says a lot (had it been a large number it would have been plastered over every Rogers press release). Pundits are saying it was nowhere close to the record set in 2014 aired on CBC, perhaps as much as 40% lower than the 2014 figures, indicative by the numbers south of border for NBC which weren’t very encouraging to say the least. (Remember, ratings for Canadian viewers do not count in NBC totals).

Worse than failing to live up to the pre-hockey-deal 2014 ratings bonanza, Rogers missed a golden chance to showcase the Sportnet brand and its NHL broadcast team to a holiday-time national audience on CBC, full of casual viewers (and potential new customers). Instead, they drew harsh criticism on how an American network aired “Canada’s game” while Rogers failed to do the same using CBC or Citytv. *Facepalm*

How to fix it:
Rogers, what were you thinking??? This one was so easy we're even surprised you blew it. Marquee games belong on CBC where all of Canada can watch. The good news is by doing this, you get an invaluable chance to show off to casual and potential new hockey fans what makes you great for watching NHL hockey. Also, while people are tuned in on CBC, you get to plug any other Rogers programming or products, get in-game viewers to check out your website and social media accounts and then drive post-game viewers to your other networks. Duh!!!

French Language Coverage

While Rogers’ SportsNet covers English-language NHL programming, partner Quebecor’s TVA network took the reigns over from Bellmedia rival RDS … sort of. While Quebecor put all its eggs in the basket of making TVASports the official NHL francophone broadcaster, it made its first mistake by losing regional broadcast rights back to RDS in its primary market of Quebec for the only two teams with a considerable francophone backing, being the Montreal Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators. This meant the network would only air maximum one game per week of these teams, and would have to wait until the playoffs (if any) to gain a ratings monopoly. Oops.
At the launch of "The Deal", Francophone audience expectations were set sky high when it was shown that there would be hockey games on Francophone network TVA as well (see graphic below). However, with regional rights lost, the big-ticket Saturday game was forced to pay-only TVASports to drive subscribers to the sagging sports network, and two years later not a single NHL game has been shown on the TVA network. What was worse for fans was that although the Saturday night Francophone games were available nationally,  fans outside of the region trying to watch the weekday games lost out as the games were blacked out on the rival network (rights were only regional).

As the final part of this bungling hat-trick of TVASports’ new reign as an NHL broadcaster, it assembled a team of B-list TV personalities from the incumbent RDS network and brought in less-known former hockey players as colour commentators. It then tried to pass this lacklustre and inexperienced team off as a high end sports commentary crew, and then brought rival TV service providers such as Bell to arbitration (such as below in May 2015) to raise retransmission fees or face having the network pulled from their subscribers. 

The results so far have not been encouraging. TVASports’ growing pains continued well into its second season of “The Deal” and an unimpressed and impatient paying public poked cruel fun at the network’s hockey coverage, making it an inside joke in many Quebec homes. The culmination of this perception happened during the most-watched New Year’s Eve francophone comedy show “Bye-Bye 2015” which referred to the network as a “type of RDS that had its oxygen supply cut off during birth” and seared the network’s credibility with the following imitation skit:

To this day, TVASports continues to fall short of its rating targets. What’s more troublesome is it is unable to convert its captive Saturday night hockey audience into a solid viewer base for its pre and post-game shows. As for the quality of the broadcast, the network has yet to land a bona fide renown broadcasting personality and remains plagued with everything from amateurish spelling mistakes to embarrassing graphical errors...

How to fix it:
A TVA simulcast on Saturday nights (as originally proposed) may have been the missed opportunity here for TVASports. By putting Saturday night hockey games back on network TV, Quebecor would have probably been hailed as heroes by the general francophone public, returning Saturday night hockey to the people after years of a cable-only RDS monopoly. True, due to the bad negotiating for regional nights of weekday games, the Saturday night TVA showcase would have severely dented any ratings TVAsports would have had, but those ratings were up for debate anyways as many Francophones have shown that rather than sign up for TVAsports they have resorted to watch the game in English while muted with Francophone radio commentary.

The missed opportunity lies in what could have been: the exposure the network would have had. A captive audience for DVR-proof programing on a nationally broadcast TV network for three hours is a priceless self-promotion prospect that could have driven traffic to Quebecor websites, social media, discussion forums, and showcased other TVAsports programming to an audience of potential customers. Also, by being available freely, people would have been more forgiving to any growing pains as they would not be directly paying for the product. With Quebecor eventually looking to bring another NHL team to francophone Quebec City, one Saturday night regular season game on TVA would have been laying the foundation for a whole new generation of Francophones nationwide to become accustomed to the TVAsports product.

Will NHL hockey ever be shown on TVA? Je ne retiendrais pas mon souffle.


Rogers (and to a certain extent Quebecor) has assumed and taken for granted that the NHL is a cash cow in Canada. They overpaid for hockey in a badly-advised long-term deal, and now will hold hockey ransom and expect Canadians to pay for it through their cable bill. But will they really learn through these first two years that people aren’t fools; and can they make the changes to return NHL hockey to all Canadians?

Besides fixing “The Deal”, there is one final area of concern and that is the future popularity of hockey in this country. As a new generation grows up learning to “follow” hockey rather than watch it due to the bungling of Rogers, the questions must be asked: how long will the NHL let this go on? Ratings are down in Canada for two years straight. Will the decline and drought last another year? Two years? Five years? How much longer before a growing number of Canadians switch from being rabid fans that watch every game from pre-season onwards to casual viewers that only watch the playoffs and a handful of regular season games? How long can TV ratings slump until this starts affecting NHL merchandising and ticket sales?

Now remember this final point: whoever tells you the business case for hockey on CBC (or any other national network) doesn’t work anymore in today’s economy is a pure fool. The NHL is to Canada what the NFL is to the United States. It’s interesting to see the success and profitability of the NFL isn’t related to cable-only TV access. 
-An editorial from Your Average Joe