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(JOHN ULAN/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
(JOHN ULAN/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Broadcasting

Sports networks strive to combat shift to online consumption Add to ...

For the CFL, Canada’s largest sports broadcaster is the only game in town.

As the 101st season kicked off last week in Winnipeg’s new $200-million stadium – which rises up from the prairies as a symbol of the league’s ambitions – TSN’s broadcast truck was collecting feeds from 11 cameras and layering on graphics and sound to bring the show to the hundreds of thousands watching at home.

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“We’re reinventing the league and we’re being very aggressive in our aspirations,” Michael Copeland, CFL president and chief operating officer, says. “TSN has really helped that because they reach into a young and diverse audience. We have a fan base that skews older, and TSN has helped us reach into a younger demographic.”

The league recently signed a five-year extension with TSN, giving the broadcaster exclusivity for the entire season, including the Grey Cup game (an annual ratings juggernaut that leaves everything else in the dust). The deal is the latest in a flurry of announcements from the country’s highest-rated all-sports TV network and its rival, Sportsnet, as the broadcasters scramble to lock up the rights they need to draw viewers to televisions at a time when more viewing is taking place away from the traditional pay channels.

The stakes are high. TSN and Sportsnet combined for about $500-million in revenue last year, and pulled in $55-million in profits. As viewers turn away from paid TV in bigger numbers, the stations and their owners (TSN is owned by BCE Inc. subsidiary Bell Media; Sportsnet is owned by Rogers Communications Inc. subsidiary Rogers Media Inc.) are looking to their sports holdings to keep subscribers from cutting the cord.

There are 12 million households in Canada that have traditional TV subscriptions, but the pace of growth has slowed and the numbers are expected to start falling off in the next year as more turn to options such as Netflix Inc, an on-demand Internet streaming media provider.

TSN has about 9.1 million subscribers paying for its channel, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, while the main Sportsnet channel has 8.8 million.

But sports TV executives hope their niche is immune to the shift toward online consumption.

Their hope is rooted in the idea that nobody wants to watch a big game on time-delay, and that advertisers still prefer to buy time around big events that get everyone watching at the same time.

A report by Sporting News Media, TV Sports Markets and Kantar Media this month found 94 per cent of sports fans consider television their main source for sports, with the average American spending eight hours a week watching games and the highlights shows that are built around them (there is no comparable data available for Canada).

“Television continues to be used by almost all fans who follow sports,” the report states. “Watching sports on TV takes up the most amount of time and contributes significantly to the total time spent consuming sports content in an average week.”

TSN has led the Canadian market since making its debut almost 30 years ago, with its top audiences easily tripling the best Sportsnet has to offer. Both channels are profitable – TSN earned $37-million in pretax profits last year, while Sportsnet earned $22-million – and both insist they will hold the No. 1 spot two years from now.

For TSN, the path is a little clearer. It has locked down a 10-year agreement with Hockey Canada that will keep the world junior championship on the network, as well as its extension with the CFL and the Canadian Curling Association. It is moving more of its content online, hoping to use the digital extras to drive subscription growth for its television network.

“Our recent major content renewals have solidified our leadership position well into the next decade,” Stewart Johnston, TSN president, says. “Having the highest-rated multiplatform content drives more eyeballs to our brand, which ultimately helps the bottom line through greater revenue opportunities.”

Both networks have a smattering of NHL rights, and will eventually share the Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL) and Toronto Raptors (NBA) broadcasts once their current respective deals expire. (BCE and Rogers Communications own the teams together through their recent acquisition of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.)

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. is still a player with Hockey Night in Canada, but those rights are up for renewal at the end of next season.

As TSN ramps up for a summer of football, Sportsnet’s big bet is on the Rogers-owned Toronto Blue Jays. If the baseball team is winning, it has estimated the broadcasts could draw a million viewers a game (though it’s closer to 511,000 a game so far this season). Consistently doubling those numbers would be huge for a network whose top-rated event in the last year was the 2013 Blue Jays home opener at 1.4 million.

“If we start winning, we’re doing a million viewers a night,” Keith Pelley, president of Rogers Media, said as the season was about to begin. “Ratings are nothing more than a form of currency.”

It also sees an opening in highlights programming. On Canada Day, it officially launched Sportsnet 360 – a channel formerly known as The Score – whose main purpose is to break news and update scores. It takes ownership just as TSN loses anchors Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, whose SportsCentre was the gold-standard highlights show in Canada, to Fox Sports.

Sportsnet, which has other more specifically targeted sports channels, radio stations and a sports magazine, beat TSN in audience share in April, and appears set to do it again in June.

It’s a small win, but it would have been unimaginable even 21/2 years ago, when new management was brought in and promised to take over top spot within five years.

“A few years ago, we were seen as TSN’s ugly cousin,” Scott Moore, Rogers Media president of broadcasting, says. “But that has changed. We’re definitely in the same conversation as TSN.”

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