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Rogers’ Scott Moore inside one of the company’s Sportsnet studios. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Rogers’ Scott Moore inside one of the company’s Sportsnet studios. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Rogers kicks off online sports – but for subscribers only Add to ...

Rogers Communications Inc. has given Canadians a chance to watch dozens of sporting matches per week beyond what’s offered on its television network, but non-subscribers will need to scale a digital paywall if they want access to the cricket, rugby and soccer matchups the media giant has opted to stream online.

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Sports programming has long been hailed as the one service that can keep consumers from abandoning traditional television packages, because viewers prefer to watch events live from the comfort of their living room.

But as online television services proliferate, even die-hard subscribers are considering their options when it comes to sports programming. The goal is to woo new fans with dozens of matches a week on the online service in the hopes they will subscribe to the company’s lower-cost Sportsnet World specialty channel. For current subscribers, it’s an online bonus to keep them from cutting cable subscriptions.

“The true sports fan is always going to want to watch sports on the biggest screen possible,” said Scott Moore, broadcast president at Rogers Media. “It’s amazing how many people under the age of 27 don’t even have televisions. But those people will eventually become 35-year-olds with wives and kids and will have cable at home. It’s not a bad idea to get them hooked now.”

Indeed, consulting firm Deloitte Canada released a report Tuesday suggesting that 80 per cent of families in North America have at least one person in their home who would be willing to pay for sports content.

While the service has been live for several months, the company waited to advertise it until it was certain that the technology, which allows users access to as many as four games at once in high definition, was up to the task. If it proves successful – it only has about 1,300 paid subscribers as of mid-January – the broadcaster may consider building similar packages around some of its other channels.

While cable and satellite companies in Canada continue to see their subscriber bases grow, the pace has slowed in recent years and many expect the country to follow the trend in the United States to a greater degree of cord cutting.

Convergence Consulting Group Ltd. said there were 180,000 new TV subscribers in 2012, down from 222,000 in 2011. Convergence estimates that 1 million U.S. TV subscribers cancelled their television packages in favour of viewing shows online or through services such as Netflix last year. Only 80,000 did that in Canada, and there are approximately 11 million households with traditional television subscriptions in the country.

It’s becoming easier with each passing year – many television shows are available in full seasons online, and sports leagues such as the National Hockey League and National Basketball Association offer online packages that allow fans to subscribe to entire seasons with one payment.

YouTube is also eyeing the sports market, and has signed a pay-per-view contract with the UFC to broadcast fights online.

“People are always going to want to tune in to their favourite sports on the big-screen TV in their living room. However, many sports fans want to keep up with their favourite players and teams wherever they are, and YouTube gives them an easy way to do that,” said spokesperson Wendy Bairos, adding the service was used to live-stream the London 2012 Olympics in 64 countries in which digital rights were not sold.

Bell Media, which held the Canadian broadcast rights for the world junior hockey championship in December, offered non-subscribers access to the entire tournament online for a flat fee of $19.99.

Bell wouldn’t comment on its future plans for online streaming, although it did issue a release last week saying it would stream the entirety of the National Football League playoffs – including the Superbowl – from its CTV site. The company has another card up its sleeve to win and keep subscribers – exclusive wireless access to the Superbowl – although that will end when its current rights contract with the NFL ends.

Canadian broadcast regulators tried to force the media company to make mobile rights available to rivals such as Telus Corp. that buy channels from Bell to offer to their subscribers, but the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications backed off when it realized Bell’s deal with the league predated its rules on sharing.

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