If you’ve been paying attention to the scheduling of Hockey Night in Canada, you might have noticed that Canadiens games are more likely to be on Sportsnet this season, whereas last season they were more likely to be on City.
This season, of the 13 Saturday evening games that have aired so far, plus the next one (Feb. 27 against the Leafs) that has already been assigned, six were put on Sportsnet, two on City and six on CBC or CBC and City. Of those six, three are games against the Maple Leafs, and two were nights the Leafs weren’t playing. Only once, on Oct. 17 (in the middle of their season-opening hot streak) did the Canadiens go on CBC and bump the Leafs to another channel (in that case, City), which caused plenty of frustration from Leafs fans who had been used to just owning CBC on Saturday nights.
The Leafs’ dominance on CBC is nothing new. The same thing happened last season. And it makes sense. The Canadiens have stronger ratings overall, but if you discount francophones who will watch those games on TVA Sports, the Leafs are the more popular team on English television on Saturday nights. And so Rogers gives them the network with the largest overall reach.
But what’s changed this year appears to be the order of priority when it comes to channel assignments. It used to be CBC > City > Sportsnet > Sportsnet One or 360. But now it appears Sportsnet has moved to the No. 2 spot on Saturday nights, to the point where City has on some weeks had either simulcasts of the CBC game or an all-American matchup.
I asked Scott Moore, the president of Sportsnet, about this during an interview I did for a Gazette story that appears in Saturday’s paper about the difficulty in finding live sports online.
“We want to put whatever games we can to the widest distribution,” he said.
But Moore, who noted he’s a Habs fan, admitted that the scheduling strategy has changed this year, and “the second best game has moved to Sportsnet and the third best game has gone to City.”
“That’s simply for a subscription play,” he said.
What does that mean? It means Rogers is putting that second-best game, whether it’s the Canadiens or Senators or Jets, on Sportsnet as a way of getting more people to subscribe to Sportsnet.
Sportsnet gets 72% of its revenue through subscriptions (75% if you also count Sportsnet One, 360 and World), and only 23% through advertising, according to figures from 2013-14 submitted to the CRTC. And as the CRTC mandates channels be offered on a pick-and-pay or small-package basis as of March 1 (and both as of Dec. 1), it’s in Sportsnet’s best interest to protect that subscription revenue.
It’s a balancing act from a capitalist perspective. Lock the games down too much on expensive specialty channels and you risk losing fans. Put too many games on free TV and occasional fans won’t bother subscribing to your sports channels because they don’t need them.
For a company that spent $5.2 billion on a 12-year deal with the NHL, finding that balance on the sport’s marquee night of the week is very important.
“It’s not so much a science as it is a feel,” Moore notes of how Saturday night games are assigned. That’s the big reason why channel assignments are only announced a week or two in advance, except where it’s a Canadiens-Leafs game, because that’s obviously going on CBC.
Had the Canadiens continued on their hot streak instead of plunging into the toilet with the rest of the Canadian NHL teams, we might have seen the Canadiens on CBC more often.
Will we see more subscription plays during the playoffs? The math changes then, with audience increasing and ad revenue becoming more important.
But at this rate they might not have to worry about it, because none of the seven Canadian teams are in playoff position (they’re all among the bottom nine teams in the league right now).
“It would be really interesting to see what happens between now and NHL trade deadline,” Moore said, a glimmer of hope in his voice that some miracle would save the postseason audience his company paid so dearly for.