It’s the biggest media announcement of the year: A $5.2-billion, 12-year broadcast rights deal between Rogers Communications and the National Hockey league. Included in it are side deals with the CBC (which will air games but won’t get revenue from them or handle their staffing) and TVA, which becomes the official French-language broadcaster.
We’ve suspected for a while that the CBC wouldn’t be able to afford to keep its rights to Saturday night hockey and the Stanley Cup playoffs. But what’s most surprising about this deal is that Bell Media, which owns TSN and RDS, is also a loser here.
A lot of details are still to be decided. Regional rights to NHL games are up in the air. We also don’t know what rights-holders will do with those rights. What games will we see on City TV? On TVA? Who will be the on-air personalities and play-by-play announcers? We’ll start knowing that in the coming weeks and months.
In short, here’s what we know and what we don’t know about this deal so far:
- CBC will continue to air Saturday night and playoff hockey. And the Hockey Night in Canada brand will continue. But that’s about it. Those programs will be run by Rogers, not CBC. Rogers will pay all the expenses, but also get all the revenue. (Which makes me wonder why CBC is bothering.) This puts the future of personalities like Ron MacLean and Don Cherry up in the air. It will also mean a huge loss of income to the CBC, which means cuts will have to be made elsewhere.
- TVA gets a minimum of 22 Canadiens games: TVA will get all national games, which includes all games that air on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday nights. (Afternoon games on those days are not considered national.) Whether these air on the TVA network or TVA Sports is still up in the air.
- There will still be some NHL hockey on TSN. The channel has the rights to all regional Winnipeg Jets games through 2021, as well as some Maple Leafs games in the coming season and beyond. It currently airs some Canadiens regional games, but the future of that deal is unclear.
- TVA gets all playoff games and all special-event NHL programming. The NHL draft, NHL awards, Winter Classic and NHL All-Star Game will now air on TVA Sports. TSN can keep its TradeCentre and Free Agent Frenzy specials, because those are news broadcasts and aren’t subject to exclusivity deals.
- TVA will launch TVA Sports 2. This will be a multiplex of the TVA Sports channel, which means it will share a licence with TVA Sports. It’s a relationship similar to TSN/TSN2, RDS/RDS2, Teletoon and The Movie Network, where channels come in groups instead of individually. But TVA Sports 2′s availability will depend on deals Quebecor signs with distributors. (Having it on Videotron is a given, of course.)
- City TV will air Saturday night hockey. It will be called “Hockey Night in Canada on City.” But the details, and how they will decide which games air on City and which ones air on CBC, are unknown. There are also musings about Sunday night hockey on the City TV network.
- Broadcast rights come with mobile rights. So for games on TVA Sports, TVA will control streaming for those games. It will need to come to deals with mobile providers for distribution. Streaming will probably be available, but likely through distributors and only to those who subscribe to the linear TVA Sports channel. On the English side, Rogers gets all the online and mobile rights, including the Saturday night games that air on CBC. This means an end to online streaming on CBC.ca for people wanting to catch out-of-market games.
- Rogers takes control of NHL Centre Ice, NHL GameCenter Live and will sell Canadian ads for NHL.com.
- No changes to radio. Radio rights are unaffected. Cogeco announced last week a five-year extension to 2018-19 that will see Canadiens games continue to air on 98.5 FM in Montreal, 93.3 FM in Quebec City, 106.9 FM in Trois-Rivières and 107.7 FM in Sherbrooke. The deal for English radio rights for the Canadiens remains with Bell Media until 2018-19, which means they will continue to air on TSN 690.
- Bell keeps The Hockey Theme.
What either hasn’t been decided yet or hasn’t been told to us:
- How much TVA is paying. No comments, despite repeated questions. We know that the Rogers deal is for more than $300 million a year, and that it includes the sublicensed deals. To give some perspective, TVA Sports’s entire budget for 2012 was $30 million.
- Details of the negotiations. Though this Maclean’s story has some general idea (Maclean’s is owned by Rogers) and the Toronto Star put together a timeline of the talks between Rogers and CBC. There’s also this story talking to Rogers executives.
- How much Bell (TSN) and CBC were willing to pay. The CBC said it couldn’t meet the high bidding of its competitors in a fiscally responsible way, and they’re probably right about that. Radio-Canada’s Martin Leclerc reports that Bell’s final offer was $5 billion, very close to the Rogers bid, and that Bell wasn’t given a chance to match what Rogers offered.
- Where those other 60 Canadiens games will go. We should know this soon enough, when the Canadiens announce the regional broadcast deal. RDS could keep Tuesday and Thursday night games, for example. Or TVA could get all 82 games. Naturally, both parties are interested in them. In English, TSN carries some Canadiens games regionally. It’s unclear what will happen with them next season.
- How regional games on TVA Sports will be distributed. The NHL’s deal with Rogers says there won’t be regional blackouts for the games Rogers owns rights for. But it’s unclear whether, if TVA Sports gets regional rights to some or all Canadiens games, if those can be broadcast nationally. But since Rogers owns out-of-market games too, I suspect that they will be carried nationally if they’re on TVA Sports.
- Whether games will air on TVA. A sample schedule published by Rogers suggested Canadiens Saturday night games could air on the over-the-air network, but TVA president Pierre Dion said they haven’t decided whether to use it yet. There are good arguments for and against airing Saturday night and playoff games on the conventional network. Keeping them on TVA Sports would drive subscriptions to the specialty channel. But with the games available in English on CBC and/or City, that effect will be mitigated. There’s also a huge promotional value for TVA Sports by putting big games on TVA. The decision will also depend on how many games TVA will get the rights for.
- What happens to hockey on CBC after four years. This deal includes a strange agreement with CBC that sees the games continue to air on the public broadcaster and carry the Hockey Night in Canada branding, but under the control of Rogers, not the CBC. This means the CBC doesn’t have to worry for now about filling Saturday nights on their schedule. But otherwise there’s no real advantage here. And because Rogers has its own over-the-air television network, it doesn’t really need CBC, except to reach areas of the country where City doesn’t have local stations. But Rogers says the plan is not to phase out the CBC, and the deal will probably be renewed unless there’s a dramatic shift in the way people watch television.
- What on-air talent will look like. We have almost a year before this deal comes into effect. That leaves plenty of time for TVA Sports to poach more personalities from RDS, and similarly for Rogers to grab people from CBC and TSN. (Apparently there will be discussions with Don Cherry, and others have already expressed interest.) Who does play-by-play is up in the air.
- The future of shows like 24CH: These aren’t broadcast rights deals, but they are deals between broadcasters and hockey teams, so you can imagine that there will be more such deals with TVA and fewer with RDS. The next season of a 24CH-like show could be airing on Quebecor-owned channels.
- How plans for the Nordiques are affected. Quebecor has made no secret of its desire to bring the National Hockey League back to Quebec City. TVA’s Pierre Dion wouldn’t make any comments about the Nordiques today. But while this deal is great news for TVA, and national rights to a theoretical Quebec City franchise would likely be included in the TVA deal, this is probably bad news for the Nordiques for two reasons. First, it means that TVA no longer needs another NHL team to drive subscriptions to its sports channel. And second, revenue sharing on this national deal means that every NHL team becomes several million dollars a year richer. Even with an inevitable salary cap hike, this will mean less pressure for struggling teams to sell to new owners who would relocate them.
- What happens to rights for other sports. This deal will mean a huge shift in programming, which will undoubtedly have consequences. TVA and Sportsnet will have less money for other sports like UFC, MLS, NBA and baseball. And TSN/RDS will be desperate to add high-value content to replace lost hockey games. We could see some of these rights go back to Bell.
- How many jobs are lost or gained. CBC has said there will be job losses as a result of this deal. (This story explores the consequences for the CBC in more depth.) For the rest, we don’t know yet.
- How much more consumers will have to pay for Sportsnet and TVA Sports. Neither Rogers nor Quebecor can simply absorb the extra costs in this deal. Ad revenue will surely go up, and they’ll be creative about platforms, but expect both companies to take a harder line during negotiations with distributors. TVA Sports gets about $5 a year on average from each of its 1.6 million subscribers, compared to RDS, which gets $30 a year on average from 3.5 million subscribers (for both RDS and RDS2). Sportsnet gets $17 a year per subscriber (for the regional channels, which doesn’t include Sportsnet One, Sportsnet World or Sportsnet 360), plus about $10 a year from its 6 million Sportsnet One subscribers. TSN (which includes TSN2) gets $26 a year from its 9.2 million subscribers. Expect the gap to narrow significantly as deals come up for renewal.
- Who will be carrying TVA Sports by next fall. The big players in Quebec all have the channel: Bell Fibe, Shaw Direct, Videotron and Cogeco, plus Telus and Rogers. But major players like Shaw cable, MTS, SaskTel and Eastlink still don’t have it. Francophone Canadiens fans outside Quebec will have more trouble, as will anyone with analog cable.
- How much money (if any) Rogers and TVA Sports will make on this deal. That, of course, is the biggest question, and the one nobody can answer. Analysts take a lukewarm look at this deal, neither loving it so much (because of its high cost) nor hating it so much (because of all the benefits it brings). All we can say for sure is that this is a big gamble, and both broadcasters will need to be very creative to make it work financially.
A petition has already started to ask — well, it doesn’t say who it’s asking, but presumably the NHL — to reverse its decision and put Canadiens games back on RDS. This obviously won’t go anywhere. The NHL isn’t going to walk away from a $5.2-billion deal.
What’s funny about this is that the reaction to RDS losing the Canadiens is similar to the reaction when it won Canadiens rights in the first place. Before the 2002-03 season, Saturday night games aired on Radio-Canada. When RDS picked up the rights to the entire Canadiens package, there was nationwide outrage. Heritage Minister Sheila Copps even went to the point of demanding Radio-Canada explain itself in front of a hearing. The summer 2002 controversy led to a deal between Radio-Canada and RDS to air Saturday games on RadCan, but eventually all 82 regular-season Canadiens games became exclusive to RDS.