November 26, 2013 8:05 pm
Updated: November 26, 2013 9:06 pm

With NHL deal, Rogers bets big on Sportsnet juggernaut


WATCH: Rogers signs a landmark deal to broadcast NHL games for the next 12-years . Full coverage from Global National’s Mike Drolet & Mike Armstrong.

The head of Rogers Communications Inc. left his index finger hanging in the air for few seconds as he made the declaration.

A blockbuster pact between the National Hockey League and the telecom giant’s sports network “solidifies Sportsnet as Canada’s No. 1 sports entertainment destination,” Nadir Mohamed said Tuesday.

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“At last,” the outgoing CEO may well have been thinking.

For years Rogers has attempted to position Sportsnet as the premier distributor of sports programming in the country, but has fallen short by every measure to TSN, which is owned by Rogers’ chief competitor BCE Inc.

No more. The NHL and Rogers announced Tuesday a 12-year agreement that at $5.2 billion is the richest TV sports deal in Canadian history by a long shot. In one fell swoop, Rogers has won control of the vast majority of NHL broadcasts across the country, planting the Sportsnet flag deep into virtually every major hockey market for a long time to come.

Rogers Media has even managed to conscript the CBC to air its hockey broadcasts, having snatched the public broadcaster’s most prized programming and the Hockey Night in Canada franchise.

TSN, meanwhile, while still retaining some broadcasts from BCE’s part-ownership in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment as well as a multi-year deal with the Winnipeg Jets, will find itself frozen out of the bulk of NHL broadcasting come next season.

Video: Media expert David Spencer discusses the monstrous shift in Canada’s sports broadcasting landscape

READ MORE: The consumer’s guide to a blockbuster sports deal

Mohamed said “maximizing the reach” of Sportnet’s programming was a prime rationale for its content-sharing agreement with the CBC, which will air Sportsnet broadcasts the same time Rogers does on Saturday nights.

The side deal – which is only for four years, not the full 12 for which Rogers holds NHL rights – also preserves some semblance of a ritual Canadians have come to cherish.

At a press conference at Rogers headquarters in Toronto, CBC head Hubert Lacroix said he was “comforted” that Hockey Night in Canada would live on on the CBC under the current terms.

“The NHL set very high financial expectations” for a contract both Rogers and Bell Media had been readying to pounce on for some time, he said, adding that the broadcaster “wasn’t prepared to spend that level of taxpayer money” to out-duel its private-sector counterparts.

Rogers will carry NHL programming on its Sportsnet networks, as well as on CBC starting in the 2014-15 season. (Canadian Press)

Instead, Rogers will pay hundreds of millions of dollars a season to the NHL – sharing some costs with Quebec broadcaster TVA, which has scored a major coup against Bell Media-owned RDS – hoping to recoup that investment through higher ad rates and subscriber revenue across myriad Sportsnet properties.

Video: Executives from Rogers, NHL and CBC discuss the landmark deal and benefits for fans

Sportsnet – already the second-most expensive English language channel on television next to TSN – will now hold even greater leverage to squeeze higher subscriber fees from TV distributors such as Bell, Cogeco and Shaw Communications (which owns the Global network and Global News).

Lacroix said the direct benefit to CBC, aside from maintaining a connection with the Hockey Night in Canada franchise, will be the ability to promote its other programming to what’s been traditionally its biggest audience.

Video: CBC head Hubert Lacroix discusses deal with Rogers to keep Hockey Night in Canada alive

Read more: On social media, Canadians react with mixed emotions to Rogers-NHL deal

“That’s what we get out of this,” Lacroix said. The CBC is paying no licencing fees, or collecting any ad revenues under the arrangement.

What viewers and consumers get will be much more NHL programming across multiple channels every night of the week. Rogers will doubtless be touting mobile access, as well.

That could mean even more bombastic commentary from the likes of Don Cherry, who “could appear on seven different networks, absolutely,” Rogers media chief Keith Pelley said.

“You can see the plethora of the outlets we have,” Pelley said.

Mohamed said there was “no direct relationship” between this deal and plans for pay-per-view games or other products aimed at lift prices for viewers.

But the executive said Rogers supports “a la carte” viewing – in which viewers pick and pay for channels they want instead of bundled content –and is working to create products catering to that model.

Video: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman discusses the league’s decision to partner with Rogers

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said it was Rogers’ “aggressive” strategy to grow the game on new platforms – “not just about price” – that sold him on the media giant’s bid.

“We are completely comfortable putting our game in their hands,” Bettman said.

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