With the puck set to drop on a new NHL season tonight, this may be a good moment to re-evaluate a Canadian institution, Hockey Night in Canada, a year after it moved from under the CBC banner to Rogers Sportsnet.
Last season’s Hockey Night in Canada as re-imagined by Rogers was the first in a 12-year deal for which Rogers paid $5.2 billion to wrest NHL broadcast rights from the public broadcaster.
The CBC now has three years left on its four-year window of carrying the show on its airwaves while bearing none of the expense of producing it.
Rogers is presumably gambling that the four-year window will coincide with the rise of the cord-cutting phenomenon, funneling viewers who had been used to free over-the-air hockey over to its NHL GameCenter, for which Rogers sent out emails last week advertising $179.99 early-bird packages.
It’s a steep bet.
With the failure of the Leafs to make the playoffs last season, Rogers was eager to blame Hockey Night’s lower ratings on the early departure of “Canada’s team”.
But considering the hiring of Mike Babcock and Lou Lamorello this year, Rogers might do well to adopt a slogan painted on the dressing room wall of the Montreal Canadiens: “No excuses.”
Rogers has been shuffling deck chairs, too, bringing in Rick Brace this past August. Brace has a reputation as a cost-cutter, and he replaces previous Rogers Media president Keith Pelley.
Some misfortunes can be blamed on circumstances, such as the fact that only one Canadian team made a deep playoff run, which provoked a steady ratings drop as the five Canadian teams that initially made the playoffs were removed one by one.
Profit will be more difficult to come by this year and every year after that, as the payment schedule to the NHL increases in size annually from $300 million in the first year to $500 million in the 12th, until the $5.2 billion is covered.
When Canadian TV ratings agency Numeris reported a million-viewer drop, from 2.454 million viewers for the NHL All-Star Game on the CBC in 2012 to 1.479 million viewers, Scott Moore took issue with Numeris’ methodology.
In addition, Numeris showed an average decline in viewership for Eastern games on Saturday nights from an average of 1.696 million, down from 1.803 million the previous year for the CBC, numbers that Numeris stood behind, despite criticism from Rogers.
The ratings themselves, though, don’t address the revenue challenges Rogers will face over the next 11 years.
Rogers was apparently able to post a profit during year one, despite the Leafs factor. But profit will be more difficult to come by this year and every year after that, as the payment schedule to the NHL increases in size annually from $300 million in the first year to $500 million in the 12th, until the $5.2 billion is covered.
While the networks don’t discuss their figures publicly regarding revenues or losses, NBC’s deal with the NHL for broadcast rights is still widely reported to be an annual $200 million.
Granted, NBC’s audience size for hockey is reportedly 379,000 per game.
A report in the Globe & Mail yesterday, quoting an anonymous source, says that ratings for the first Leafs game of the season against Montreal last year, at 2,024,500 viewers, fell 60% to its lowest point for a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on April 8.
Viewers returned for the Leafs’ final game against the Habs, an essentially ceremonial 4-3 shoot-out loss, to the tune of 2.3 million.
Add to this the confusion of the fact that NBC, despite paying far less for hockey broadcast rights than Rogers, dictates to the NHL its preference for when the games air. This saw several games aired on Saturday afternoons last May, exasperating many fans.
“I think Strombo’s settled in really, really nicely. The playoffs were terrific for him and we expect people to grow even more used to him next year.” – Sportsnet president Scott Moore
So some things truly are beyond Rogers’ control.
While Rogers may or may not eventually be able to increase the overall viewership for hockey, it has still had to adjust rates downwards for advertisers last year, after initially assuming that Hockey Night in Canada advertising would be a seller’s market.
Likely to their amazement, Tim Hortons and Canadian Tire, which had been title sponsors prominently featured in HNIC broadcasts on the CBC, walked away, holding out to negotiate more reasonable terms.
With the Leafs possibly in the doldrums for much of Rogers’ 12-year contract while the team undergoes a rebuild (barring some kind of Don Cherry miracle), a possible silver lining exists in the fact that Rogers will turn its attention to other bright spots in the league to help juice ratings, namely Oilers phenom Conor McDavid.
Rogers plans to cover more than 30 Oilers games this season, which should satisfy a little of the country-wide criticism that Hockey Night in Canada is Toronto-centric, and that the broadcasts all sound basically like Leafs home games, with obvious disdain for other teams in the voices of commentators.
Speaking of on-air talent, Sportsnet president responsible for NHL properties Scott Moore said earlier this year, “People love to debate certain things in Canada and almost anything involving hockey on Saturday night becomes a debating point. I think Strombo’s settled in really, really nicely. The playoffs were terrific for him and we expect people to grow even more used to him next year.”
One can debate the worthiness of George Stroumboulopoulos as host all day long. Ron McLean’s replacement frequently makes up for the fact that he often seems to be out of his depth with a personable chumminess (that many viewers also find distracting).
If Rogers was hoping to replace the safe middle class choice of Ron McLean with someone that Millennials could actually watch, they might have chosen Andi Petrillo, who at minimum knows what she’s talking about hockey-wise, on top of having the added benefits of being young, competent and telegenic, qualities that sometimes seem a little outside Strombo’s wheelhouse.
Ron McLean, like Johnny Carson, was able to turn on the charm without seeming phony, with an easy smile and comfortable tone. But he, like Carson, never overshadowed any guest or ingratiated himself in a queasy way. Again, this is an approach that seems a challenge to Stroumboulopoulos.
Sure, McLean wasn’t challenging or edgy or young. But he did have a light touch that isn’t found that often in interviewers, which made the person he was talking to the focus of an interview instead of him. This is actually an incredibly rare skill, which you might see in someone like Johnny Carson and frankly not a whole lot of other people.
Ron McLean, like Carson, was able to turn on the charm without seeming phony, with an easy smile and comfortable tone. But he also, like Carson, never overshadowed any guest or ingratiated himself in a queasy way. Again, this is an approach that seems a challenge to Stroumboulopoulos.
Expressing scorn for Strombo is almost too easy, though, with his Le Chateau dress code and his clique-ish affectations. In the end, he has done the job Rogers asked him to do, despite almost certainly being the wrong candidate for the job.
McLean, meanwhile, is seeing his Hometown Hockey show moved from City TV to Sportsnet, and is being given a co-host in the form of Tara Sloane.
In an effort to further jazz HNIC up, Rogers will continue to have commentators standing around on holodecks, and will likely double down on the use of GoPro helmet ref cams and other gimmicks.
But the larger question is, did Hockey Night in Canada really need fixing? Is it possible to squander the good will of an audience who were fine with a program that’s been honed nearly to perfection over decades?
And haven’t we seen this movie before?