Tuesday, 9 June 2015

With hockey rights, Sportsnet is catching up to TSN.

Sportsnet President Scott Moore says that their coverage of the NHL and HNIC was “profitable” and will get better next year, which might be faint praise, might be calling a spade a spade.

Of course, their takeover of the national Canadian broadcasting contract for the NHL, and the crown jewel of Hockey Night in Canada from the CBC has been marred by questionable or downright poor choices when it comes to the on-air talent (Don Cherry, Bob Cole, P.J. Stock, Nick Kypreos, Dave Randorf, Paul Romaniuk) and technical glitches and generalized lack of competence, but a lot of that can be excused by allowing that it's their first year, and they can tweak it and will benefit from this experience next year and beyond.

What can't be excused was Gary Bettman's boneheaded, short-sighted decision to throw in his lot with the worst broadcaster of hockey in Canada, for a dozen years, and effectively shutting out more talented crews elsewhere, and ghetto-izing his league instead of broadening its reach.  At the expense of loyal viewers who have to put up with the shlocky product, growing pains and barrage of intrusive advertising to pay for it all.

Tony Gallagher provides the West Coast view on HNIC, and how local fans also find the program Toronto-centric:
“But we’re just feeling sensitive out here, as usual with us westerners. After all, I’m sure they’d be perfectly all right with having a panel of experts sitting in Vancouver discussing a Leafs game between periods if the shoe was on the other foot.”
I also like how he explains that most reader comments to online stories are “negative”, which might be the best explanation to how crotchety we are on social media and sites like HockeyInsideOut.

In spite of all this, it appears that Rogers' gambit, its massive investment in hockey, maybe be paying off.  For the first time, Sportsnet may be pulling ahead of TSN in terms of viewership numbers.

There's some debate over who is actually getting more eyeballs, but it's a rapid ascent in actual numbers for Sportsnet, who were perennial also-rans in this race.  Having hockey games as a draw has caused a significant shift in viewing patterns.

I think it was inevitable that their numbers would rise with their monopoly on the NHL. They still have hurdles they’ll have to face though:

1)  Habits. Viewers are used to Gino Reda and Natasha Staniszewski, it’s hard to make the switch. Watching Sportsnet’s newscasts, they feel alien, awkward. I don’t know the talent, their quirks.

2)  Placement on the ‘dial’. Lots of cable and satellite give TSN the ‘head of the class’ treatment, at the top of the list for sports channels. Whenever I check my guide to see what’s on, I punch in ‘900’, and get the five TSN’s at the top of the list, then one of Sportsnet’s offerings. I have to scroll down twice to see what they have on offer, and most of those channels are blacked out, useless, so I often don’t bother.

3)  For the next few years, the CBC will vampire some of their numbers as long as they keep airing HNIC. Sure, Rogers gets the revenue, but not the eyeballs, the prestige.

I found it interesting that Scott Moore was forecasting for next season in optimist mode, saying “Well, five Canadian teams are true contenders, and the Leafs and Oilers will be better, so our viewership should increase next season on HNIC and hockey in general”, or words to that effect. He’s taken the good as a given, and the bad as bound to improve. As if the Senators or the Jets or Canucks can’t crater next season.

It’s like when we’re making our projections in the summer, and go “Well, Tomas will score 20, and Brian Gionta will score 20, and P.K. should score at least 15, and René Bourque has snapped out of it hopefully, maybe he can chip in 20, and Lars should finally break out this season and he’ll get us 20, …”

Anyway, fans and the networks are poorly served by this abomination of a TV deal, with one network barely able to service all this product, and the other two effectively shut out. Far, far less than ideal, and locked in for another decade.

The NHL would have been better served to keep everyone in the game, in competition, hyping its product. I see TSN trying to pump up its alternatives, the Women’s World Cup of Nothing Happens, and tennis and the CFL, when they should be all hockey all the time. If they had skin in the game.

So Sportsnet is more desperate and bidding higher? Give them the big chunk, the Saturday games, but ensure that HNIC on CBC remains, give the penurious Crown Corp an Eastern and Pacific time zone game every week, even if Sportsnet gets the Leafs most of the time. Have a true national offering on CBC, rotating the teams for equal exposure.

And give TSN a Sunday game and Tuesday Night Special, etc. Keep them involved. Give them American teams on Saturdays.  Something like that.

Get all the networks falling all over themselves to showcase your league, hype your product 24-7-365. Like the NFL does. Sure, you’re still no match for that juggernaut, but take the long view. Look at how the landscape changed in 20 years. Hockey can grow.

But that would require vision, imagination. Genuine love and belief in the game, instead of treating it like a commodity to be hawked to the highest bidder.

But that’s Gary Bettman for you, penny-dumb and pound-foolish.

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