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Heads begin to roll at Rogers as NHL Sportsnet deal heads south

The return of Blue Jays baseball cannot arrive soon enough for Rogers Communications.

The overall hemorrhaging of hockey broadcasting money via low ratings and shrinking ad revenue has claimed its first victim in the form of Gord Cutler, appointed Senior Vice President of NHL Production by Rogers in February 2014, just a few months after Rogers Communications inked its $5.23 billion, 12-year NHL deal in November 2013.

Rogers claims to have posted a small profit after the deal’s first year, despite an early playoff departure by the Leafs, but as the Rogers 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, profit becomes more and more difficult to come by.

This year presents Rogers with a scenario that can’t end soon enough, with no Canadian teams in the playoffs effectively hanging an anchor on the company’s bottom line as they embark on producing a lengthy live sporting event that hardly any Canadians will actually watch.
An Angus Reid poll published Thursday found that 54 per cent of Canadians who described themselves as “regular playoff watchers” planned to watch less NHL playoff hockey than they normally do, or not watch at all. This, notes the firm, is the first year since 1969-1970 that there is no Canadian team in the post-season.

Aside from being one of three key executives behind the deal that cemented the Rogers NHL deal in the first place, along with Rogers Media president Keith Pelley and quickly departed CEO Nadir Mohamed, Cutler is an award-winning producer with more than 25 years of industry experience, having worked six Olympic Games and 19 seasons producing NHL games for Fox, NBC and TSN, among others.

Writing for Yahoo! Sports, Chris Zelkovich reported, “Reaction in the business was basically disbelief that Cutler would be axed and confusion as to why such a move would be made on the eve of the playoffs.”

The timing of the move, though, should surprise no one, as someone had to pay for Rogers’ $5.23 billion NHL failure.

A bit like the coach of a team that fails to make the playoffs, someone had to pay for the 30% drop in ratings for Hockey Night in Canada during the past year, not to mention the difficulty of peddling ad sales for a cultural property that Rogers probably assumed would be more bankable than it turned out to be.

Cutler’s elimination makes some sense, though, given that he oversaw what are widely perceived as a variety of missteps, including the replacement of longtime HNIC host Ron MacLean with George Stromboulopoulos, and has also been on the receiving end of on-air tirades from Don Cherry, unhappy with Coach’s Corner being trimmed from seven to five minutes in order that more intermission time can be spent listening to Stromboulopoulos banter with Nick Kypreos, Elliotte Friedman, P.J. Stock, Glen Healey and Kelly Hrudey.

The famous montages put together by Tim Thompson for Hockey Night in Canada also disappeared on Cutler’s watch, a move that many saw as symptomatic of an aesthetic race to the bottom, and an accompanying focus on the bottom line, in light of what Rogers came to expect from the rebooted show.

In March 2014, MacLean playfully said to Stromboulopoulos before setting out on his hockey-related road journey, “Don’t screw this up, it’s a big show.”

Zelkovich also reports that despite Cutler having worked with Sportsnet president Scott Moore since the network’s launch in 1998, the two conflicted recently over the direction of the broadcasts.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, NBC Sports Network is quietly pleased with its steady increase in American ratings after 10 years of broadcasting NHL hockey.

Cutler’s duties will be taken up by Rob Corte, who will now be responsible for live events and studio production.

In a sublicensing agreement with Rogers, the CBC agreed to continue broadcasting Hockey Night In Canada for four years, relinquishing both the cost of producing the show while also foregoing its ad revenues, which have flowed instead to Rogers.

To say that Rogers should have seen this coming, this being the first time in 46 years that no Canadian teams have made the playoffs, is akin to suggesting that Alberta could have seen $30 oil coming a few years ago.

You have to think, though, that TSN is probably enjoying watching the Rogers airship catch fire like the Hindenburg drifting in for a landing, having at least managed to hang on to Dolores Claman’s iconic Hockey Night theme song.

Much virtual ink has already been spilled detailing why the structure of Rogers’ NHL deal makes it more and more difficult for Rogers to recoup its investment year after year, further dragged down further by expensive new initiatives like broadcasting in 4K and Sportsnet Now.

Perhaps, rather than doubling down on the shiny holodeck strategy that has seen hockey ratings in Canada fall by 30% over the past year, Rogers might think about what made Hockey Night in Canada a beloved institution over the decades as part of its playoff post-mortem.

Until then, Rogers is at the mercy of the boys of summer.

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