June 29, 2016
The Rise and Fall of Sportsnet
Twelve years and $5.2 billion headlines demand attention. Rogers media giant and owner of the Sportsnet brand found that out on November 26, 2013.
Rogers and the NHL had come to terms on what is the richest media deal in the history of hockey and in doing so made fans, media and insiders stand up and take notice. Every news outlet in Canada made it their top sports story with the exception of TSN of course. TSN’s reaction was a stunned and muted one. If you want to know more about the inside TSN story – give James Duthie’s “The Guy on the Left” book a read. He does an excellent job on the very emotional story of losing broadcasting rights.
At the time Rogers Media President Keith Pelley said “Our vision is to build on the NHL’s legacy in Canada with an emphasis on storytelling, innovation, and technology—weaving the NHL, its teams and its stars even deeper into the fabric of Canadian culture.” Pelley is no longer the president of Rogers Media having moved on to the European Golf Tour. Reports are that Pelley has had a rough start to his tenure overseas.
Thirty-two months later, Hockey Night in Canada and Sportsnet are both in trouble. Since its first broadcast (under the new deal) in October 2014 Sportsnet hockey ratings are down a whopping thirty-two percent according to some reports. The NHL, fans and advertisers are pissed off. Too many people have lost their jobs as the broadcaster tries to steady the ship.
So what happened? How did an institution like HNIC lose so much in such a short period of time? The answer is not an easy one.
For eighty-three years the CBC held either national radio or TV rights to broadcast NHL games in Canada. Names like Danny Gallivan, Dick Irving Jr, Foster Hewitt and Bob Cole laid the ground work for hockey broadcasting standards across this country. Modern NHL hosts and play-by-play people including Ron MacLean, Don Cherry, again Bob Cole and most recently Jim Hughson have built upon and honoured the deep- rooted traditions of Saturday night hockey.
Once 2014 rolled around, MacLean was out as the host, Cherry’s first-intermission rants were shortened and Bob Cole was shuffled to the back burner. All of these pioneers of the game put in tens of thousands of hours plying their trade starting when they were playing the game at their childhood arena. Each one earned his way to the top through talent and hard work earning the trust of hockey fans along the way to be their source of hockey insight and news.
To try and bring NHL hockey into a more modern arena (pardon the pun) Sportsnet tried to remake NHL broadcasts more hip and modern. This was an obvious attempt at reaching out to younger viewers. No fault there. That is good business for the future.
Cue the introduction of George Stromboulopoulus. Strombo as he is affectionately known was lured from another area of the CBC to replace Ron MacLean as the host of HNIC. The hip and good-looking personality has had a successful career as a talk show host on TV and radio. Aside from a brief stint as a morning host at the FAN 590, he has no sports experience. Walking out onto the set in tight leather pants , suede suits or sporting flashy bright colours (Don Cherry excluded) . . . . well you get the picture.
The reaction was swift and harsh. Conservative Canadians were not ready for such a drastic change. Strombo had not put in the time to take on such a high profile gig. If Sportsnet had started him out hosting a second- intermission segment (using the hip and modern slant) he could have perhaps slid into hosting duties after a few years. Simply too much Strombo too soon.
The other half of that equation is that Ron MacLean was unceremoniously removed as host. Enough has been said about that since the March 2014 staffing change. What do you do when a company publicly airs its dirty laundry? Hopefully you steer clear. Rogers Media/Sportsnet executives have been doing just that since the Leafs merger with Bell. Well publicized infighting, allegedly calling out fans on social media and a reported unflattering turnover rate at the highest levels had almost become the norm. Social responsibility and stability is a cornerstone of successful business. Rub your customers the wrong way or send out negative vibes and watch them head for the exits. Or in this case tune out.
Perhaps the biggest mistake Sportsnet made is in not listening to the fans. The product being produced is sub-standard and fans made it routine to voice displeasure on social media. Every Saturday night post after post reflected the bad taste fans were experiencing. Everything Sportsnet needed to know was waiting for them at Twitter.
Each broadcast became more painful to watch. So what did reserved and nice Canadians do? Stopped watching and took to social media. Thousands of tweets demanding that Strombo be removed. Many fans are now lost forever. According to other sources, viewership on Saturdays were down 16% in the first year. This year it was down again with viewership plummeting once the playoffs started. Sponsors start asking themselves, ‘where is the value on Saturday night?’
All those broadcasting greats set the standard and it did not come through in the product. Without naming names, today’s mass firing of most of the on-air personalities is a step in the right direction. Off topic discussions, obvious acrimony between panelists (this was more than fun jostling) and TV personalities confusing the masses hurt the broadcast. Sportsnet needs to take a step back and listen to fans and sponsors alike. It does seem like the broadcaster was more worried about being hip, trendy and delivering the game on any video screen out there as opposed to delivering a hockey game in good form.
It’s not entirely the broadcaster’s fault. Seven Canadian hockey teams must shoulder some blame for not making the playoffs. Most fans have pride and allegiance to “their club.” They may switch to another Canadian team should team ‘A’ not make the playoffs. Viewership simply disappeared and you can’t be blamed for not wanting to cheer for a San Jose and Pittsburgh final.
It is rumoured that advertising contracts had a clause for sponsors to receive free advertising during Blue Jays games to make up for the lack of Canadian playoff games. This is only one ripple effect of the poor start to Sportsnet’s 12-year deal. It’s a shame the first two years have been such a waste. So far Sportsnet has paid the NHL over $500 million and put out more money for production costs. There are 10 years remaining on the contract.
Another lesser factor is that CBC was effectively shut out and TSN was blown off the map. CBC has zero input into production but does not carry the financial burden either when broadcasting on Saturday nights. Some of the personalities fired today were lured away from TSN for riches and security. Now most are out of work. There is always a danger in jumping onto another ship but a 12-year $5.2-billion deal tends to give one a false sense of security when Sportsnet comes to raid the TSN and CBC cupboards.
The financial hit SN has taken is an expensive one. Is Rogers Media willing to dump piles of money onto the TV set anymore? Not likely. They need to do it smart this time with smart hockey people in place. The alternative may be to sell a large chunk of the hockey to TSN and CBC, let them run with it and let the ratings war begin. After all both parent companies of Sportsnet and TSN each own 37.5% of MLSE. What could possibly go wrong? Discuss among yourselves.
So today is good first step. MacLean is back. Now to see what happens to the format and who will be in front of the camera come October 9th, 2016. Having two guys stand on a stage rocking back and forth discussing the nuances of the game did not do it. New behind-the-scenes blood needs to be hired.
John Shannon is now behind the camera and may be a good replacement for Rogers Media head of production Scott Moore. Shannon understands the game, it’s history and it’s deep traditions and has a hockey resume that makes him an elite hockey man. His is responsible for turning around HNIC 2 decades ago and the goto guy for Olympic hockey feeds. He could assemble a production team that can bring fresh ideas forward but not at the expense of tradition or viewership.
If hip is the way to go then a more reserved approach is needed. There is work to do to earn back the trust from fans. MacLean can’t do it all. It is at a point where they are all standing on the edge of a cliff. They can take one step back to get to solid ground, then forge a new path.
If not? Polite Canadian fans will say no thank you and move on . . . perhaps for good.
Next time: the Sportsnet solution. Stay tuned to LeafsHub.