A new contract for Don Cherry.
President of Sportsnet and NHL properties Scott Moore told The Canadian Press on Monday that 82-year-old Don Cherry has signed a “multi-year deal” to return to his Coach’s Corner spot on Hockey Night in Canada, in which he has featured since 1981, extending his current two-year deal which was set to expire at the end of the playoffs.
Speaking of playoffs, Rogers Media communications director Andrea Goldstein told the Toronto Star in an email on Monday that even though hockey is still the most watched event on Canadian television, average television audiences for the Stanley Cup finals are down 18% year over year.
For the first three games of the Pittsburgh Penguins v. San Jose Sharks Stanley Cup championship series, average viewership for Hockey Night in Canada stood at 1.86 million viewers.
That’s something of a disaster for Sportsnet owner Rogers, which picked up exclusive Canadian broadcast rights for NHL hockey in a blockbuster $5.23 billion, 12-year deal signed in November 2013.
At that time, making money out of broadcasting hockey on Canadian television must have seemed like a license to print money.
But the likelihood of generating profit out of the deal becomes less likely with each passing year, given that Rogers’ payment schedule to the NHL increases in size annually from $300 million in the first year to $500 million in the 12th.
Things go from bad to worse when you consider that 2015’s playoff ratings were already 12% lower than in 2014, a slump that Rogers was eager to blame on the early playoff departure of “Canada’s team” (a.k.a. the Toronto Maple Leafs), even though five Canadian teams remained in the mix.
This year represents the first time since 1970 that no Canadian teams have made the playoffs, which is certainly a factor in the slumping ratings.
But Rogers can’t point only to external factors beyond its control to explain Canada’s lack of interest in Hockey Night in Canada.
In an effort to revamp HNIC after winning broadcast rights from the CBC, the first thing Rogers did was replace long-time host Ron MacLean, who is now in the middle of a four-year contract to host “Hometown Hockey”, with George Stroumboulopoulos, who has his own five-year deal.
Heads have already begun to roll behind the scenes, however, with Senior Vice President of NHL Production Gord Cutler, who was appointed in February 2014, a couple months after helping negotiate the Rogers-NHL deal, losing his job this past April.
Meanwhile in the United States, NBC Sports Network is quietly pleased with the NHL’s modest but solid ratings, which has experienced growth among U.S. viewers after 10 years of broadcasting, and resulted in about $5 million more in ad revenue for this year’s playoffs compared to last year.
NBC is also content with those ratings owing to the fact that this year represents the first time since 2011 that two teams from secondary markets are playing in the final.
Not even all that start-up money around San Jose could disrupt the cruel reality of hockey economics.
Anytime teams from large markets like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago are playing, U.S. ratings improve dramatically, which would definitely also be the case in Canada if Toronto were to ever become a contender again.
Watching the hole grow in its hockey revenues, Rogers can take comfort in improved ratings and revenues for the Toronto Blue Jays and Raptors, who have both experienced a viewership bump after impressive playoff performances.
“The Leafs do drive the ecosystem of hockey in this country,” said Moore at the Rogers programming launch.
Only a deep playoff run for the Toronto Maple Leafs, currently in full rebuild, might make Rogers’ NHL deal not seem like the bad investment it was.
Scott Moore would not be drawn on specifics on any off-season shake-ups at Hockey Night in Canada, saying, “All I’ll say is, you tweak as you go.”
With Cherry behind the bench for a new season, Rogers may not be finished rearranging deck chairs on Hockey Night in Canada, eliminating personnel based on an old hockey rule that Cherry knows something about: Too many men on the ice.