The most complicated and expensive rights deal in Canadian history was pieced together in five days after Rogers Communications Inc. decided to gamble the company's broadcasting future on the National Hockey League.
The cable giant has spent the past several years under president Keith Pelley building its Sportsnet brand, securing rights deals and acquiring stations in a bid to boost its national presence and steal the top spot from Bell Media-owned TSN.
Now, Rogers has sealed a $5.2-billion, 12-year deal for national broadcast and digital rights for NHL games that will radically reshape the way Canadians watch hockey and shifts the balance of power in the country's broadcast industry. The deal immediately hands Rogers a powerful tool to drive demand for cable TV subscriptions - and in the longer term, gives the firm a bigger digital platform, particularly for broadcasting to mobile devices.
For Canadians, the deal means a much different way to watch the national game. Instead of a limited number of matches on a Saturday night, fans will have a much wider choice, on a range of devices: more channels, more games, different personalities - but at a higher cost on a monthly cable bill.
Mr. Pelley realized last Wednesday as he sat in a New York boardroom that there was a chance not only to steal the lucrative Saturday night national broadcast rights from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., but perhaps an opportunity to freeze out Bell Media.
The Rogers team scrambled to get the company's board onside, and raced to persuade the CBC and Quebecor Inc.-owned TVA to join their bid as broadcast partners who would show games but reap little financial benefit. The bid had one catch - it had to include all digital rights. "In my career, I've never seen something come together that fast," Mr. Pelley said on Tuesday. "And nobody swore at anyone - we were all on the same page."
The $5.2-billion deal was signed on Sunday, beating out Bell Media, which is believed to have pitched a similar plan to the NHL but was left with no national rights at all when the dust settled. TSN made its own aggressive bid, not far short of the Rogers offer, according to sources familiar with those negotiations. But it wasn't enough, leaving TSN with a 70-game gap to fill next season, as well as the three rounds of playoffs it has carried each year.
The price Rogers will pay - starting at about triple the annual rate CBC currently pays - means it will make far more Canadian games available on every conceivable platform. But it will also need to recoup the expense, $300-million in the first year, escalating to $500-million by the end. That will translate to higher costs for television subscribers, as Rogers charges rival broadcasters more for the right to show its Sportsnet channels and looks for ways to make money from online content through subscription packages.
"This is a deal that you can't compare to any other deal based on the fact that it is a multiplatform rights deal and we're in an era of gargantuan change as tech changes almost daily," Mr. Pelley said.
Rogers will be able to do that because it controls all national NHL broadcasts, not only on television but also on the mobile devices that viewers are turning to as a substitute.
While the CBC will continue to broadcast Hockey Night in Canada on Saturdays for the next four years, Rogers will decide which games it shows, and control staffing in a strange situation that gives Rogers control over everything from commercial inventory to on-air personalities at the CBC.
Rogers will also ensure other Canadian games are shown on Saturday nights, something that has not happened for decades as the public broadcaster picked specific games to highlight to maximize ratings and increase advertising revenue. In other words, every Canadian game played on a Saturday night will be available to every Canadian with a cable package. And all of the advertising revenue will go to Rogers.
CBC's rights to Hockey Night in Canada expire at the end of this season, and all major Canadian broadcasters were scrambling to outbid the public broadcaster for exclusive rights to Saturday night broadcasts.
Once it was clear a deal was possible, Rogers approached the CBC to find out if it would be interested in a partnership to keep Hockey Night in Canada alive, but transfer editorial control to Rogers. The deal ensured the CBC could fill a programming hole in its schedule and promote its weekday shows, and CBC president Hubert Lacroix reluctantly agreed, although it was not what "we had hoped for."
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he is impressed by the way Rogers could incorporate its cable, telecommunications and media divisions in a way that delivers games to viewers regardless of platform. This is important as younger fans moving into adulthood look for ways to stay connected with the game.
"We wanted a relationship where we and our partner would have the flexibility to move among platforms, because people, particularly of varying ages, are consuming their entertainment differently than they ever did before," Mr. Bettman said. "People my age still rely on a big-screen TV. Our kids, my grandkids, are watching on tablets and on phones ... we may be looking at things in the course of this deal that don't currently exist."
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