The financial stakes are being raised this week in one of the most lucrative corners of Canadian television - the half-billion-dollar cable sports business - and John Levy knows this may only be the beginning.
Mr. Levy, chief executive of Score Media Inc., has just made a substantial bet on his small cable network, The Score, investing in a $15-million makeover designed to bolster the channel against bigger rivals TSN, Rogers Sportsnet and an expanding CBC.
The money spent on new studios and equipment for The Score amounts to about half its annual revenue last year.
But when the switch is flipped tomorrow night on the network's new look, the overhaul will come not a moment too soon. Competition is heating up across that segment of the TV dial.
TSN launched its companion channel TSN2 on Friday and, one week earlier, CBC was granted federal approval to launch a cable sports network of its own next year. In an industry where the top three sports channels - TSN, Sportsnet and The Score - rake in nearly $400-million in revenue annually, those networks are scrambling to protect their turf as competition intensifies.
"We were always the whipping boy of all the sports networks," Mr. Levy said of The Score, which had broadcast from a 700-square-foot studio in Toronto since the mid-1990s.
"We used to tell everybody that it was our satellite studio - the real studio was somewhere else."
Such facilities will no longer do, however.
The new studio is goliath by comparison, roughly seven times larger, with more than 40 plasma screens and a light display similar to the stage effects at a rock concert.
Score Media brought in New York set builder James Yates Production Design, which has worked on studios for ESPN, CNN and Entertainment Tonight, to come up with its new look - a sign of what this expansion means to the company.
With more sports channels trying to squeeze onto the dial, The Score will need to wring every bit of glitz out of the new set it can.
Even though TSN2 launched without carriage agreements on some of Canada's largest cable operators, such as Shaw Communications Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc., those are likely only a matter of time.
TSN president Phil King has said he wants to use TSN2 to expand the channel's brand, broadcasting events such as U.S. Open tennis, which the network doesn't always have room to show live on its main feed.
It also wants to use the second channel to show regional sports such as NHL games in different parts of the country, as Sportsnet does.
TSN2 is "in the middle of negotiations" with the big cable companies to get a spot on the dial, Mr. King said recently. It launched on about a dozen carriers, including Eastlink Cable Systems in Atlantic Canada and Cogeco in Quebec.
Meanwhile, CBC expects to have its new sports channel going in early 2009. And if the Canadian Olympic Committee, which applied last year to operate a cable channel devoted solely to showcasing amateur sports, succeeds in that application, competition for sports viewership will become greater.
TSN and CBC have tight restrictions on their licences for the new channels - TSN2 is largely allowed to broadcast material already carried on the main network and CBC can only devote 10 per cent of its week to professional baseball and hockey.
However, both channels are expected to impact the overall sports TV market, despite such limits.
With 8.6 million subscribers last year, TSN had the lion's share of cable sports revenue at $214.4-million. Sportsnet was next with 8.5 million subscribers and $147.3-million in revenue, followed by The Score, with 6.1 million subscribers and $32-million in revenue.
Add in several additional cable channels related to sports - such as the NHL Network, Fox Sports, Raptors TV and others - and the industry is worth about $500-million in Canada.
"There's no question sports is the best genre," Mr. Levy said, explaining why all companies are investing more in that segment.
"It's live and it's not something that can be prepackaged. Every day we wake and we've got a whole new network."
When The Score relaunches this week, Mr. Levy hopes his network will shed that whipping boy image once and for all.
It's new operations open up to the street and will employ "steady cams" and a host of other gadgetry not used by the network before.
Standing in the new studio last week, as construction was still being completed, one of the faces of The Score, Cabral "Cabbie" Richards put the changes in perspective.
The Score's old space could only accommodate a few camera angles and moving around was tough.
"I'm going to be able to run around a lot in here," Mr. Richards said, doing mock sprints in the new studio.
It's an investment Mr. Levy hopes will be enough to keep The Score in the race against the other networks.
Around the dial
Revenue at the cable sports networks in 2007
Subscriber fees $117-million
Total revenue $214.4-million
Pretax profit $41-million
Subscriber fees $92.6-million
Total revenue $147.3-million
Pretax profit $16.6-million
Subscriber fees $13.1-million
Total revenue $32-million
Pretax profit $5.9-million
Source: CRTCReport Typo/Error
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