Rogers NHL deal won’t score with fans

By Gauntlet Editorial Board

For over 60 years, hockey fans across the country have tuned in to CBC Saturday evenings to watch Hockey Night in Canada.

Despite the proliferation of regional broadcasts that make it possible for fans to watch all of their favourite team’s games, Saturday night games on CBC are still eagerly anticipated as a chance for the hometown team to shine in the national spotlight and bask in the glow of Hockey Night in Canada’s production quality. From the pre-game music montages to the post-game sit downs with freshly-showered players, Hockey Night in Canada on CBC treats hockey with reverence. Hockey Night in Canada has set the benchmark for sports broadcasting in Canada for decades and remains miles ahead of Sportsnet’s lacklustre local broadcasts — it’s reputation as the premier National Hockey League broadcast has only recently been eclipsed by TSN’s national programming.

On Nov. 26, the NHL signed a colossal 12-year, $5.2 billion broadcasting deal with Sportsnet owner Rogers Communications, tolling a death knell for this weekend tradition. While Sportsnet will allow the CBC to broadcast Hockey Night in Canada for four more years, CBC will cede all editorial control and advertising revenue to Rogers.

What the future holds for the program beyond those four years is unclear. Perhaps Rogers will continue to throw CBC a bone and keep the tradition alive — although Rogers’s track record suggests that Hockey Night in Canada could eventually be reduced to a shell of it’s former self.

Sportsnet productions are not held in particularly high esteem by hockey fans. Look no further than their local presentation of Calgary Flames hockey for reasons why. Post-whistle scrums and instant replay opportunities are routinely missed to cram in extra advertisements, which are also distractingly placed digitally on the glass behind the nets. Audio mishaps and other various technical glitches are common.

Perhaps most frustrating are Sportsnet’s personnel selections, an area in which they will have full control over Hockey Night in Canada. Despite their best efforts, play-by-play announcer Rob Kerr and colour commentator Charlie Simmer combine for one of the most awkward broadcast pairings around. Analysts Nick Kypreos and Doug McLean frequently yell at each other instead of offering insight. A decision to replace or reduce airtime from honed CBC talents such as Ron MacLean and Elliot Friedman with Sportsnet commentators would be a mistake. But the shuffle has already begun — Kypreos made his Hockey Night in Canada debut this past weekend.

Consumers will pay for this new broadcasting arrangement not only with their eyes and ears but with their wallets as well. While Rogers will provide hockey coverage on Saturday night on up to nine channels, these channels have to be paid for by cable providers. The cost would be passed on to the consumer if Rogers decided to demand more for their monopoly on national hockey broadcasts. Rogers has gained a chokehold over our national sport.

Those who would opt to ditch cable and go online like moviegoers have done with Netflix won’t find luck there either — the Rogers deal includes control over the NHL’s Internet streaming service. Making this online service an affordable option to hockey fans is unlikely as Rogers prioritizes protecting its cable and wireless empire by keeping hockey fans glued to their TV sets.

Nevertheless, the Gauntlet is not suggesting that the CBC should have ponied-up taxpayer money to keep the hands of telecommunications corporations away from Canada’s game. The CBC’s exit from an arena so coveted by the private sector is necessary and has been a long time coming. CBC’s production quality is in fact being surpassed by Bell’s TSN, which will be scrambling for a new sport to cover while its employees scramble for jobs at Sportsnet. It’s a shame Bell was outbid by Rogers — TSN’s production is the pinnacle of sports broadcasting.

NHL programing in Canada is finally being kicked out of its parents’ house and into the real world of private sector broadcasting. The kid is going to go through some hard times and fans are going to witness them on live TV. Let’s hope Rogers flaps its wings sooner rather than later, otherwise hockey fans will have to watch their beloved sport be dragged down into 12 years of mediocre broadcasting.

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