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Toronto Maple Leafs, owned by Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, is one of the “original six” teams in the National Hockey League. The team has not won a Stanley Cup since 1967, nor reached the playoffs since the 2003-04 season, but is still the most profitable team in the league. (Reuters) (Mark Blinch/Reuters)
Toronto Maple Leafs, owned by Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, is one of the “original six” teams in the National Hockey League. The team has not won a Stanley Cup since 1967, nor reached the playoffs since the 2003-04 season, but is still the most profitable team in the league. (Reuters) (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

STEPHEN BRUNT

Content is king in the modern sports world Add to ...

It makes too much sense.

Negotiations may not be complete for Rogers Communications to purchase the majority share of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment controlled by the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, and perhaps there's a chance they never will be.

But there's no denying the logic of such a move is impeccable.

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Rogers certainly has the money. The teachers, at this stage, might be well advised to cash out.

And in the modern business of sport, just as in the modern business of telecommunications, content is king.

The original model of team ownership involved putting bums in seats by putting a product on the field or the ice or the hardwood that paying customers desired, selling tickets for whatever price the market would bear, selling those fans popcorn and soda pop and beer.

Next came advertising in the stadium - billboards on the outfield fences - and the peddling of broadcast rights, first on radio then on television, with the value of those rights determined by ratings. Then there was the idea of ownership synergies: if you already owned a brewery, for instance, perhaps that business would benefit from happy associations with your hockey team or ballclub.

Eventually, someone realized that the highest rollers would pay almost any amount to be given special treatment, to be boxed off from the riff raff in premium seats, and thus was born the luxury market.

All of those revenue streams have been pretty much maxed out now. It is actually becoming harder and harder to lure fans out of their homes, away from their high def (and soon enough, 3D) televisions, and into the rinks and stadiums, while at the same time conventional, advertiser-driven network television is in decline. Sports ownership still has great vanity value - owning the most popular team in town can instantly turn a rich nobody into a rich somebody - but it is no longer the goldmine it once was, except for those who control the information pipelines.

With all distribution technology pretty much equal these days, with the lines between television and the internet and mobile blurring (and well on the way to being erased) it's all about what you have to put in that pipe, to differentiate you from other guys, with the other pipe. Sports in that context is a particularly attractive commodity, because its audience (even in a pick and choose culture) is remarkably loyal, tuning in for game after game, season after season, and because live sporting events really are best viewed live - they are close to PVR-proof, and the perfect product for handhelds.

Rogers understood at least some of that when it bought the Toronto Blue Jays. Even without winning, even without filling the stadium, the franchise had great value in the 162-games of programming the Jays provided for their radio stations and their all-sports television network.

What they understand now is the sports content stranglehold buying a controlling interest in MLSE would provide, at a time when the use of handheld technology is exploding.

Already, in addition to the Jays, Rogers has a significant investment in regional NHL hockey rights, and is a partner with its major rival Bell/CTV in the Olympic broadcast consortium (which owns the 2012 Games, and is the prohibitive favourite to win the rights for the 2014 and 2018 Olympics). By adding the Leafs, the Raptors and Toronto FC to their portfolio, they would become the largest sports media company in North America, control the single most attractive sports brand in the country, and would be in a strong position to challenge CTV and TSN for national NHL broadcast rights, which are scheduled to become available in 2014. Content from those sports properties could be spun out through all of the Rogers platforms.

(TSN still controls rights to the highly-rated Canadian Football League, and will no doubt work hard to extend that deal before it expires. Rogers might yet counter by becoming partners in an National Football League franchise in Toronto, as has long been speculated, though NFL ownership, because its teams don't control their own television rights, provides no content bonanza.)

The deal, if it happens, would represent the most radical recasting of the national sports scene in the country's history.

But despite the wild numbers involved, it's not rash, it's not romantic, it's not an owner being sucked in by the love of the game.

This is all dead rational, this is calculated, this is all about the bottom line, this is about giving the people what they want - and more importantly, that for which they're willing, directly or indirectly, to pay.

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