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The Usual Suspects

MLSE deal: A typical Canadian compromise Add to ...

If you were trying to explain Canada to an extraterrestrial, the alliance last Friday between rival telecommunications companies Bell and Rogers to buy Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment would serve the purpose.

Faced with the intractable and costly business problem of which company would possess Canada’s most valuable broadcast property, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the two sides chose a distinctly Canadian solution.

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They split the baby 50/50, each buying an equal share.

Not only that, the telecom giants also divided the radio rights for the team in the same fashion between Rogers’ Sportsnet 590 The Fan and Bell’s TSN Radio. Now what could be a more Canadian solution than that?

Bloodshed avoided, witty savants foiled, and hockey fans content that the blue-and-white will be available (for the time being) on their current cable and satellite systems.

The two sides then vowed to resume hostilities when they came back from the commercial break.

Even more remarkable was the response from CBC. Back in the day, this marriage of Canadian corporate compatibilities might have sent the national broadcaster into paroxysms over monopoly and media concentration. As a party left out of this MLSE deal – CBC currently owns national NHL TV rights – you could have presumed some cautionary language about concentration and so on.

Guess again.

“I would like to congratulate Bell, Rogers and [MLSE minority shareholder]Larry Tanenbaum on their deal,” wrote Kirstine Stewart, executive vice-president CBC English Services. “Increasingly, sports rights deals are dependent on strong partnerships. We are proud of our partnerships with Rogers on the upcoming FIFA World Cup 2014 and with Bell as we prepare our joint Olympic 2014/2016 bid.”

We’re not in Kansas any more, Dorothy.

Presuming this deal passes the sniff test from those worried about concentration in the media – no one has protested yet – what will be the journalistic fallout?

How does the prospect of Leafs general manager Brian Burke and Bob McCown of Sportsnet radio as colleagues sound? To some, probably about the same as McCown and Toronto Blue Jays manager John Farrell drawing cheques from the same owners.

Already, subtle editorial bias can be seen when a network’s program leads with a story on one of its properties.

Not only do these two companies now control a vast array of media outlets from TV to radio to print, they also employ a number of journalists from other media. (Disclosure: Usual Suspects has done intermittent freelance work for CBC, Rogers and CTV in the past.) Among them are Jeff Blair of this paper, Damien Cox of the Toronto Star, Bruce Arthur of the National Post and Steve Simmons of the Sun papers, all of whom have exclusive deals with one corporation or the other.

Most of the people in this vortex will bridle at the thought that their opinions can be bought or swayed on an issue involving the Leafs, Blue Jays, Toronto Raptors and Toronto FC. Their cachet with readers has come from objectivity built painstakingly over years.

But this is different. This is bigger than individual reputations.

When Rogers owned a single Toronto sports property, the Blue Jays, this thin gauze of impartiality could be plausibly maintained. But with Rogers and Bell swallowing such an enormous segment of the sports TV market, consumers may now rightly question whether trust is enough, even for reputable voices. In this climate, the assurances Friday of fierce competition going forward set a bar that may be too high to clear.

Another byproduct of this deal for those few sports properties sitting outside the TSN and Rogers empire: Cracking this editorial domination will be a formidable challenge. With broadcasters’ inventory already outstripping its shelf space, getting secondary programming to air in prime time will be nigh on impossible.

The Great MLSE Compromise is a solution made in Canada. But some will be excused for not saluting its impact on the broadcast business.

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