Rogers Media president Keith Pelley has already hinted at his network, Rogers Sportsnet, being interested in HNIC, and Bell Media has made no secret that it would like to take over NHL broadcasts by expanding into Saturday nights with their NHL on TSN broadcasts. The current rights holder, CBC, has made some cost-cutting moves recently as the nation's public broadcaster found itself in the red ink, and there is widespread speculation that both Rogers and Bell will force CBC out of the race by simply throwing more money at HNIC than CBC can spend when CBC's contract is up in two years.
I'll be honest in that I like the work that CBC has done over the last 60 years as the major hockey broadcaster in this country. They have shown the ability to grow with the game, adding new camera angles and high-definition broadcasts, but more importantly is the fact that they have partnered with so many great hockey ideas to help the game remain as popular as it has over the years.
The thing about CBC is that the channel is available to everyone with just basic cable. I use Shaw Cable at home, and I also get their high-definition feed for free with my HD digital box. Hockey, if you haven't seen it in high-definition, is definitely made for HD with its speed, and it looks absolutely fantastic on the CBC HD feed. While seeing Don Cherry in high-definition is definitely a "must-see" at least once just for his jackets, CBC generally does a great job when it comes to their hockey broadcasts. The CBC's personnel - specifically Ron MacLean, Kelly Hrudey, Jim Hughson, and Don Cherry - are some of the best in the business. I'd be quite happy to see HNIC remain on the nation's public broadcaster if given the option.
However, a new player jumped into the fray this season when TSN joined the basic cable programming for Shaw. Included with my standard-definition TSN feed was the high-definition feed. And because I'm using a digital cable box to pick up the HD signals, I also get the TSN2 standard- and high-definition channels as well. If hockey is being covered on both channels as it was in the first-round of the playoffs, I'm flipping between these two channels, and CBC, quite religiously. TSN boasts an excellent broadcast team - James Duthie, Bob MacKenzie, Darren Dreger, Pierre LeBrun, Chris Cuthbert, and Gord Miller - and they truly know the game inside and out. If CBC is not able to retain the rights to HNIC, I'm quite comfortable if TSN is the new home of HNIC and will enjoy the excellent broadcasts they are known for already.
Where I fear HNIC will lose its mystique is on Rogers Sportsnet. I receive Sportsnet West and Sportsnet West HD as part of my basic package, but Sportsnet Ontario, Sportsnet Pacific, and Sportsnet One are extra. Funnily enough, Sportsnet One HD is part of the standard HD package, but the standard-definition channel is not. Makes sense, right? Also, note that there's no Sportsnet Quebec, but the broadcaster does show QMJHL games so there's still hope that the Canadiens will be featured on Rogers Sportsnet if they successfully acquire the NHL rights. One major problem is that Sportsnet really has nobody in the booth that can be considered in the same echelon as Gord Miller, Chris Cuthbert, or Jim Hughson. Additionally, I'm not really interested in just seeing western Canadian teams all the time on Sportsnet West, so there may have to be a serious rethinking of their channel structures. In short, Rogers Sportsnet is probably the worst choice of the three when it comes to the NHL rights.
Reportedly, the former deal that the CBC signed was a five-year deal for $100 million. While that seems like a rather small amount of money, there was an excellent report in MacLean's magazine about the ordeal that the CBC went through when it came to dealing with Gary Bettman and the CBC regarding the TV rights. I highly recommend you read the linked article because it really gives you an idea of how negotiations for the next CBA may go as well. And possibly the next lockout. Yes, the information in the article is that revealing. Richard Stursberg, former head of CBC, really tells all in this excerpt from his book.
With the NHL once again informing everyone that revenues were up across the board over the last five years, I'm going to assume that the $100 million price tag will have, at least, doubled. With Gary Bettman doing the negotiations, it may end up being tripled or even quadrupled by the end of the dealings, and there's no way the CBC will even come close to that price tag. After giving up playoff games and Maple Leafs games to TSN in the last negotiation, I'm afraid to say that the CBC might be out of the game before it even starts.
If it is a two-dog race, I'm hoping for TSN. They really do a marvelous job on their hockey broadcasts, and certainly rival CBC as the best hockey broadcaster in the nation. The only problem is that nearly 85 years of hockey on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation will be nothing more than a small piece of history in game where dollars and cents are clearly becoming more important than ever before.
The NHL needs to realize that it's not the NFL. Ridiculous contract demands in a market that already salivates at the most minor hockey detail is probably tantalizing for the NHL, but pricing themselves out of the CBC's market is a bad idea because all of our cable TV prices go up. With the demands that the NHL could possibly make, making the choice to have rising basic cable costs for a lot of Canadian families when other necessities are so much more important might price cable TV right out of their homes. That's bad for business on a number of fronts, especially when most of these families already cannot afford to attend their local rink to see their NHL team play.
I can't tell anyone what's going to happen, but I think there needs to be some sort of teamwork shown by Rogers, Bell, and CBC. If the three networks come in with low-ball offers, the NHL will have to acquiesce to at least one of the offers. Some can call this collusion, but I see it as fiscal responsibility. Canadians love hockey, but we're not willing to see it at any cost. We practice smart fiscal responsibility, and we appreciate a good deal. The three major networks who carry hockey should, ultimately, do the same when it comes to making the game more affordable for everyone to see.
That being said, business is business. The networks will outbid one another for the NHL TV rights, and the NHL will find themselves laughing all the way to the bank while the winning network will up their advertising rates. Someone will win in the NHL TV rights battle in Canada. It just won't be the companies that advertise during hockey, and it probably won't be hockey fans.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!