Rogers Media will rename its recently acquired sports station “Sportsnet 360,” and plans to position the channel formerly known as The Score as a 24-hour news service for hardcore sports fans who are just as interested in watching press conferences as they are in watching games.
The cable and media giant paid $172-million to buy The Score in August, but only recently took over the station after winning approval from Canada’s broadcast regulator. It plans to rebrand the channel on Canada Day, adding it to its lineup of Sportsnet-branded channels that own exclusive broadcast rights to the Toronto Blue Jays and regional rights for several Canadian NHL teams.
Including 360, Rogers now has seven Sportsnet channels.
Rogers unveiled the new name at its so-called “upfront” presentation in Toronto, as it announced a slew of new television shows for its television networks and the return of the Grammy Awards to City. That it bothered mentioning sports at all during the upfront, which traditionally focuses on the new dramas and comedies that will fill a broadcaster’s lineup in the fall, underscores the importance of sports to the company’s fortunes.
“This will be the home of breaking news and information powered by the Sportsnet engine,” said Scott Moore, president of broadcasting at Rogers Media. “The first people we need to satisfy are the former Score viewers, because we don’t want them to leave us. Then we can build on that.”
Fans of the channel – which was the third most popular in the country behind CTV-owned TSN and Rogers-owned Sportsnet – worried Rogers would strip the channel of its personality when the deal was announced. The Score was built as a scrappy competitor to the mainstream networks, and relied on its on-air personalities to draw viewers since its licence restricts it from airing more than one live event a day (and it didn’t have rights to any big events).
Mr. Moore said the company plans to stick with the formula that worked for The Score, although it has far more money to spend on both producing content and promoting programming than the channel’s previous owners.
“It will have far more resources at its disposal,” he said, adding he’s asked the former Score employees to “stick up for the brand” to try and stay true to its past. “They couldn’t do a lot of stuff because they didn’t have the resources. But we have things coming into the Sportsnet newsroom and rather than interrupt programming on Sportsnet we can send them to 360 and stick with it longer.”
Rogers also plans to continue to be the exclusive broadcaster for WWE, FIBA basketball and the Vanier Cup. The Score still exists in a way – the channel’s digital division was spun out in the deal and will continue to use the name as an independent company.
The Score was created as a ticker service, running text scores on screen all day before evolving into a television channel that carried some live programming but mostly provided commentary and highlights. Its licence dictates that it must always display a ticker, and live events must be interrupted frequently to provide news updates.
The Score also devoted some time to university sports, something that other Canadian sports broadcasters have been reluctant to spend much money on. Rogers plans to continue this tradition, and has asked the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for permission to spend some of its tangible benefits money on creating an “all-star weekend” for college and university championships coverage.
Rogers had asked to spend the money – a percentage of each deal that sees a broadcast licence change hands in Canada must be paid out into initiatives that support and enhance Canada’s broadcast system – on the creation of an amateur winter games event but the idea was rejected as too self-serving by the regulator.
Its revised proposal would see the network set up cameras and broadcast booths at campuses across the country during one weekend in the spring, and provide “Olympic-style” coverage that cuts from one event to another as developments unfold. It still requires approval from the regulator, and get college and university executives to co-ordinate championships.
But while amateur sport has a niche audience in Canada, Rogers knows it needs its big rights deals to draw large numbers of viewers if the sports channels are going to challenge market leader TSN. It had hoped the Blue Jays would see a major boost in viewers from last year’s average of about 507,000 viewers per game thanks to a big payroll boost, but the team has underperformed and ratings have been disappointingly flat compared to last season.
Rogers Media’s president summed it up going into the season at an event intended to boost the team’s profile and underscore the correlation between ratings and profit: “If we start winning, we’re doing a million viewers a night. Ratings are nothing more than a form of currency.”
Mr. Moore said the company wasn’t “uniquely boosteristic” about the team’s prospects, and said that even though the team hasn’t been great the ratings are still better than they were two years ago (particularly among younger viewers).
“The team’s not where we’d hoped they’d be in the beginning of the season,” he said. “But they’re still cool. I’m amazed how people still talk about them, but the affinity still seems to be there. People criticize, but they’re still top of mind.”