During Scott Moore’s first stint in charge of the storied Hockey Night in Canada franchise, he remembers the show travelling to Winkler, Man., in 2008 for Hockey Day in Canada. A CBC crew brought Don Cherry and the gang to town, population about 10,000, for a day of festivities and backyard rink folklore interspersed between a triple-header broadcast of NHL games in other Canadian cities.
“When you left, people are saying great things about the CBC,” Mr. Moore said in an interview this week. “They just feel good about what the CBC brings to Canada.”
Now, Moore is back overseeing Hockey Night again and trying to recapture that magic feeling for Rogers Communications Inc., the telecom and media giant that gambled $5.2-billion last fall as a starting point to assemble the most formidable engine for broadcasting hockey that Canada has ever seen.
For the next 12 years, Rogers will be a seven-days-a-week hockey factory, having landed sweeping rights to air the NHL in Canada late in 2013. The company plans to produce 553 regular-season games plus every playoff game on 13 channels and a range of platforms, making full use of its TV, Internet, wireless, radio and print arms.
A key plank in the strategy will be Rogers Hometown Hockey, a travelling 25-town tour with a mobile studio tied to a Sunday evening game broadcast. It is designed to tap the spirit and grassroots feel of Hockey Day on a weekly basis, burnishing the Rogers brand. The company has been restructuring under new CEO Guy Laurence, who feels Rogers has “neglected our customers over recent years” and is bent on improving the firm’s image.
“When Ron MacLean and the Rogers Hometown Hockey crew leave Lethbridge or Red Deer or Burnaby, I want them to think, ‘Geez, we actually really like those Rogers people – they’re sort of cool,’” said Moore, now president of Sportsnet and NHL properties for Rogers.
The Ontario-based communications behemoth’s first season as the self-proclaimed new home for hockey kicks off Wednesday, when the Montreal Canadiens travel to Toronto to open the NHL season against the Maple Leafs. The rivalry between Canada’s two most eternally loyal fan bases is sure to draw big ratings.
But for Rogers’s multibillion-dollar bet to pay off over the longer term, the company must find ways to draw many more Canadians into the already crowded tent of hockey spectatorship – and not just when the Leafs or Habs are playing.
The plan, aside from putting more games on more networks on more nights of the week, involves an ambitious array of “storytelling” that puts the game’s stars front and centre, tells deeper stories about their lives and keeps the fan’s focus on the ice and in the locker room.
The labour strife and revenue squabbles have often stolen the spotlight in recent years. But growing the game – one of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s favourite euphemisms – is hardly automatic in hockey-mad Canada. The CBC spent decades building and broadening the Saturday night audience. Sundays are already packed with NFL football, big-budget dramas and live awards shows. And weeknight ratings still depend heavily on who’s playing.
The company will be awash in hockey, with every corner of the business expected to leverage the rights somehow. All 475 Rogers retail stores are set to sell hockey. Today’s Parent magazine will have a hockey-focused feature every issue – how to create a hockey birthday party, for example. Even The Shopping Channel, which is Rogers-owned, is now hawking 400 exclusive NHL products.
“We need to, over the course of 12 years, grow our audience,” said Gord Cutler, senior vice-president of NHL production for Rogers. “We need to get to different demographics.”
‘It’s a lot of freakin’ hockey’
Growing the audience also means keeping the customers Rogers already has on board. In 2010, the core Sportsnet channels had more than 9.1 million subscribers, but that figure has been falling, and dropped 3.3 per cent last year to just under 8.5 million.
Some Canadians have begun cutting the cord on their cable subscriptions, turning instead to online services, and stemming the churn of customers leaving the system is a top priority across the Rogers empire. The company increasingly sees live events as the lifeblood of broadcasting because they are considered DVR-proof – few people tape them to watch later, skipping through commercials – and sports in particular can form powerful emotional bonds with viewers, making them catnip to advertisers.
Keeping people hooked up to traditional television means a larger potential audience for advertisers, whether on the Sportsnet specialty channels, the City networks on basic cable and satellite or the CBC on Saturday nights. Keith Pelley, president of Rogers Media, is fond of saying “ratings are nothing more than a form of currency.”
Getting people to watch the games isn’t such an issue. The NHL is far and away Canadians’ favourite sports league, and 59 per cent of TV viewers watched at least one NHL game a week last season – 39 per cent watched more than that – according to Charlton Strategic Research, which surveys hockey viewing habits.Report Typo/Error