It shouldn’t be this hard to watch the hockey games you want

Ever since the fall of 2014, when Rogers began a 12-year broadcasting rights deal with the National Hockey League, hockey fans (and Montreal Canadiens fans in particular) have been scratching their heads, pulling their hair out and engaging in other clichés trying to figure out how to watch their games.

There were several changes that took place all at the same time:

  • Rogers acquired national rights to NHL games, which includes Saturday night games (formerly CBC), Wednesday night games (formerly TSN) and Sunday night games (a new national window)
  • Rogers changed the way Hockey Night in Canada worked. Rather than split the CBC TV network and assign different stations different games, it used its multiple channels to make every broadcast national. On the plus side, it made it easier for people in Vancouver or Toronto to watch a Canadiens game, but on the minus side, it made it harder for the sometimes fan to catch their local team if that team wasn’t the Toronto Maple Leafs.
  • Rogers sub-licensed French-language national rights to TVA Sports, taking those rights away from RDS. For the first time in a decade, RDS did not have a monopoly on French-language NHL rights and would not broadcast all 82 Canadiens games.
  • Rather than let TVA Sports broadcast all Canadiens games, the team signed a separate regional rights deal with RDS, which meant the network would have to be blacked out outside the team’s region. Similarly for the Senators, which RDS also picked up regional rights to.
  • Some teams signed new regional rights deals. The Canadiens signed an English deal with Sportsnet, whereas before TSN had some regional games. The Senators went from Sportsnet to TSN for its regional rights. And the Maple Leafs had its regional rights split between TSN and Sportsnet, leaving Leafs TV without any games.
  • TSN went to five channels, ending part-time special regional channels for the Jets and Canadiens and making TSN3, TSN4 and TSN5 the main channel for regions served by the Jets, Leafs and Senators, respectively.
  • Rogers took control of NHL GameCentre Live, and made changes to that service.

To help people out, I wrote a story for the Montreal Gazette explaining the changes as best I could and included a full-page chart of every Canadiens game and what channels it would be available on.

A year later, there were enough demands from readers for another one that the sports editor asked me to repeat it.

And once again this year. Despite the situation being very similar to last year, the Gazette devoted another full page to the TV schedule and a story explaining what’s different. (I’ve also updated a story from last year for fans outside the Canadiens’ broadcast region.)

Don’t blame Rogers

Because these changes happened after Rogers took over as the national broadcaster, many fans blame the company for every blackout, complication or lack of availability of broadcasts. Some of that is earned, but most of it is not. It’s the National Hockey League, not Rogers, that sets the rules.

The anger is particularly high for Montreal Canadiens fans, who are used to seeing every game on RDS. The sub-licensing with TVA Sports meant that not only would Saturday night games move to the competing network, but RDS’s remaining games would have to be blacked out in most of Ontario and western Canada. The fact that Rogers made all 82 games available in English for the first time ever wasn’t enough to counteract that.

The NHL lets its teams sell rights to most of their games on a regional basis, meant to protect teams’ markets from competition for viewers. There are also games, usually on specific nights, where the league sells the rights on a national basis and there are no blackouts. It’s the same in Canada and the United States, and it also exists in other leagues (you think it’s complicated up here, look at the mess that is regional sports networks in the U.S.)

So I find myself spending a lot of time explaining to people how it works, that broadcasters don’t want to black out their channels, that it’s not just a money grab by Rogers, that it has nothing to do with the CRTC or whether a team has sold out a home game (that’s an NFL rule).

But knowing all that I do, there are some things that even I don’t understand, and that I think could be changed.

Do we need regional rights anymore?

The idea behind regional rights blackouts, whether it’s the NHL, MLB or the NFL, is to protect a sports team’s home market. If you’re starting a new Major League Baseball team in, say, Vermont or Connecticut, you want people in that area to be fans of your team. So you carve out an exclusive territory, and you make sure that other teams can’t broadcast all their games in that territory. You don’t want to make it as easy for people in your area to become Yankees fans.

But as fans here continually complain, that kind of thing won’t make them change allegiances, it’ll just frustrate them. A Habs fan in Toronto is going to stay a Habs fan, regardless of how many games are available to them on TV. And the regional rights blackouts don’t help when teams are close enough together that they can’t really have separate regions. (The Oilers and Flames share identical regions, as do the Canadiens and Senators, and many teams of different leagues in the New York area and southern California.)

What if we just eliminated them? Keep the split between rights sold by the league and those sold by individual teams, but end out-of-region blackouts.

The Canadian Football League doesn’t have regional blackouts. All games for all teams are national, and TSN holds the rights. And yet teams serving smaller markets, like the Ottawa Redblacks and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, aren’t complaining about people from their region being able to watch Toronto or Montreal games. And the Saskatchewan Roughriders are still crazy popular in that province.

In Canada, Major League Soccer splits game rights between national and team-sold broadcast deals. That’s why RDS (national) and TVA Sports (team-based) split the rights to Montreal Impact games. But there are no MLS regional blackouts in this country.

It’s too late to renegotiate existing agreements (mainly because too many parties are involved), but when the national deal comes up in 2026, Rogers (or Bell, or whoever) and the NHL should sit down and explore the possibility of lifting these blackouts in Canada.

Let me pay for it

An even more frustrating problem is for people who pay for services set up to watch out-of-market teams: NHL Centre Ice and NHL GameCentre Live. There, we have the reverse problem: Those broadcasts that are available on regular TV are blacked out in these services. (Though Rogers has made national games available in GCL and some in-region regional games as well.)

I get the need to protect regional rights holders. But if I’m paying $200 a year to watch NHL games, I should be able to watch everything. The NHL should either tell regional rights-holders to live with the competition, or come to some agreement whereby some of that $200 goes to compensate the regional rights-holder for the money they would otherwise get from a subscription to their TV channel. (And, of course, making sure that it’s their feed that’s used, ensuring that viewers see their ads.)

There’s progress being made. Making national games available on GCL is a big step forward. Making regional games available for authenticated subscribers is another, but Bell, Rogers and Quebecor need to sit down with each other and finally hammer out an agreement that allows their services to be fully available to each other’s TV subscribers. It only serves to annoy subscribers and alienate fans when Videotron subscribers can’t access Sportsnet Now and Bell subscribers can’t stream TVA Sports.

Other things can also be done, like linking GameCentre Live and NHL Centre Ice so you only have to pay for one of them to get both. Or creating new packages that make it easier and cheaper to follow a single team rather than the entire league.

More and more fans are saying screw it and watching pirated streams online. Some are even paying a few bucks a month for it, because it’s simple and reliable. As a recent Sportsnet Now ad showed, that’s the real competition here.

If people are willing to pay $200 a season to watch hockey, the least you could do is not make them jump through hoops on top of that.

This is your problem, NHL. Fix it before you lose even more fans and even more potential revenue.

22 thoughts on “It shouldn’t be this hard to watch the hockey games you want

  1. Lance C

    The terrible Roger’s broadcasting deal… The Subban trade… Bickering about Weber VS Pacioretty before the season has even started… Obvious ticket sale manipulation / scalping by the league and teams to drive up prices and profits… $10.75 for a f–king beer… Not one Canadian team in the playoffs last year… The fake, Bettman inspired, cash-grab “World Schlep of Hockey” tournament…

    I’ve moved on from the NHL because they have really killed the intrigue of the game with all the money grubbing.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      I’m not sure how the NHL is responsible for the Subban trade or Weber vs. Pacioretty, but you’re free to like or dislike a league as much as you want. They’ll act when the law of supply and demand forces them to, and it’s not yet.

      Reply
    1. lester

      i think this would be easy fix. Rogers customers should reconize this bunch are money grabbers. customer service, or appreciation means nothing. i hope people will look twice
      before signing with this greedy, greedy bunch . come on customers say no to Rogers…
      every body will soon find out how quick problem will be fixed.. no more $179 or blackouts….

      Reply
  2. dilbert

    The mistake the NHL (and many other sports organizations make) is believing that they are popular enough on a regular basis that the vast majority of fans will pay for the rights to watch. They then balance the loss of viewership (because of losing the free OTA games) against the huge pile of cash that someone (in this case Rogers) has stacked up.

    The biggest problem for the NHL is that it locks out many casual fans. Those people who don’t have Rogers sports channels (or no cable at all) or people who are not in front of a cable connected set at game time are SOL. You can’t be a casual fan anymore – either you pay for it, or you get very little (perhaps nothing).

    That big pile of cash is hard to resist, but it has the potential to erode the future fans… the kids who’s parents don’t want to pay for hockey on TV and don’t want to give up their main TV every couple of days for their kids to watch the game… those kids are “lost” fans. 20 years from now, the NHL will have issues if they are not careful, those kids won’t teach their kids to watch hockey either.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      The mistake the NHL (and many other sports organizations make) is believing that they are popular enough on a regular basis that the vast majority of fans will pay for the rights to watch.

      They are. Rogers paid $5.2 billion for TV rights because of it.

      They then balance the loss of viewership (because of losing the free OTA games)

      They haven’t lost OTA games. In fact, because City is part of Hockey Night in Canada, there are more TV stations broadcasting hockey than before.

      Reply
      1. dilbert

        You are kidding, right? In Montreal, you use to have games on CBC (weekend), TVA, and Quatre Saison. You got 2 to 3 games a week over the air. That meant that over the air, there was pretty much EVERY Canadiens home game, and many of the road games were on what would have been basic cable (rds) at the time.

        There is, of course, no way that City TV represents more TV stations that the CBC did.

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          You are kidding, right? In Montreal, you use to have games on CBC (weekend), TVA, and Quatre Saison. You got 2 to 3 games a week over the air.

          That was a long time ago. But now there are three games — two on CBC and one on City on Saturday nights.

          Reply
          1. Brent Michaud

            Except when City and CBC show the same game because the Habs have been moved to Sportsnet. Then there are the afternoon games before the Superbowl that CBC used to air as well as the special games that CBC aired like the season opener. Not to mention that all the Canadian Saturday night games were available for free on the CBC website.

            Reply
  3. Dan

    I don’t know if it is new this season or not, but you can stream Hockey Night in Canada for free each Saturday night on NHL GameCentre.

    That said, I use NHL.TV, the US version as they have a team-specific option available, something Rogers will never have for as long as they are losing money on this deal. Even with the crappy US dollar, it still comes out much cheaper than paying Rogers for their version.

    Also, I’m not sure why someone would want Centre Ice & GameCentre when you can easily stream GC to your TV using any of the popular cheap media streaming devices available.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      I’m not sure why someone would want Centre Ice & GameCentre when you can easily stream GC to your TV using any of the popular cheap media streaming devices available.

      That uses up a lot of bandwidth, especially if you’re streaming a lot of games in HD.

      Reply
  4. Steve Rukavina

    This is precisely why I dropped Roger Gamecentre Live. Too many blackouts on Habs games. I figured why am I paying for this? Would’ve kept it if there were no blackouts. Now I will never go back. I blame NHL.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      This is precisely why I dropped Roger Gamecentre Live. Too many blackouts on Habs games.

      GCL isn’t designed for people in Montreal to watch Canadiens games. Instead, Rogers is pushing Sportsnet Now as the solution for in-market teams.

      Reply
    2. lester

      i don’t understand why anyone would sign with Rogers…? it’s time for us . the customer.
      tell this greedy bunch.. we the customer wil have the last say.. or will we just say OK . keep
      pushing it down our throath

      Reply
  5. Lance C

    Overpay for the broadcasting rights then make it back by overcharging fans for access to the NHL feeds online (the ones that are not blacked out)… then paying again for the extra bandwidth if you want to see in HD, then add the 15% sales tax on top of it all. NO THANKS ROGERS and NO THANKS NHL.

    My entire extended family dropped the idea of watching NHL games once the roger’s deal got started.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Overpay for the broadcasting rights then make it back by overcharging fans for access to the NHL feeds online (the ones that are not blacked out)… then paying again for the extra bandwidth if you want to see in HD, then add the 15% sales tax on top of it all. NO THANKS ROGERS and NO THANKS NHL.

      How are fans being overcharged for access online? If you subscribe to Sportsnet, you get Sportsnet Now for free.

      As for bandwidth charges and sales taxes, none of that money goes to Rogers (unless Rogers is your Internet provider) or the NHL.

      Reply
  6. Jimmer

    So if you’re in the GTA, what is the best NHL package to subscribe to? Taking all this into consideration. Which network REALLY gives you access to all NHL games every night, and perhaps even select which feeds you want to watch (home team feed vs. visitor team feed). No blackouts…

    Which is it?

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      So if you’re in the GTA, what is the best NHL package to subscribe to? Taking all this into consideration. Which network REALLY gives you access to all NHL games every night, and perhaps even select which feeds you want to watch (home team feed vs. visitor team feed). No blackouts…

      If you’re in greater Toronto and want to watch every game of every team, including the Leafs, there’s no one network that will give you everything. You’d need to subscribe to TSN, Sportsnet, Sportsnet One, Sportsnet 360 and either NHL Centre Ice (TV) or NHL GameCentre Live (online). GameCentre Live will allow you to choose between home and away feeds.

      Reply

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