The National Hockey League is officially cancelling some of its regular season games, but the high-stakes battle for Saturday night sports viewers has just begun.
With the players locked out and the league on indefinite hiatus, broadcasters are scrambling to fill their schedules and keep viewers interested in hockey. Many large companies rely on the NHL for winter marketing, and rival networks see the lockout as an opportunity to steal both advertisers and viewers from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. The CBC has held exclusive broadcast rights to Saturday night games since 1952, and said Thursday it will continue to broadcast old NHL games on Saturday nights rather than turn to alternative programming to fill the time usually occupied by Hockey Night in Canada.
Advertisers spend tens of millions of dollars each year on hockey advertising. A hit to the CBC's viewership, and any subsequent loss in advertising, would come at an already perilous time for the public broadcaster.
"The market is going to fragment," said Cary Kaplan, president of sports marketing firm Cosmos Sports. "CBC is dominant in that time slot and it's just a cultural thing to turn that game on. They need to try and retain those viewers and sponsors."
CBC has a plan that is firmly rooted in reality television and its tradition of fan interaction – it's asking viewers to vote for which "classic" games it will air, giving them a choice between five games a week.
The first batch of games has been posted online, and includes the Ottawa Senators' return to the league in 1992 and a Maple Leafs game from 2000 that saw Mario Lemieux return to the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup after a three-year break.
"Advertisers are always interested in hockey fans, but we're humble about the numbers we are expecting for these games," said Kirstine Stewart, executive vice-president of English services at the CBC. "This will be fun, and it maintains the brand which is important to our advertisers."
She said the broadcaster will take the lockout week-by-week (only the first two weeks of the regular season have been officially cancelled), and is trying to keep things light. Don Cherry isn't part of the plan, but she said he and other regulars could be integrated into the broadcast if the lockout runs for an extended amount of time.
"Fans are in the middle of the situation and we're there for them if they want to come to us," she said. "Our role is to give them something to look forward to if they can't watch live hockey. We want to have fun with this and keep it a bit tongue in cheek."
At Rogers Communications Inc.-owned Sportsnet, executives have lined up a steady stream of American Hockey League games on Saturday nights to try and pry viewers away from CBC. It will rely on farm teams such as the Toronto Marlies and Binghamton Senators, which feature many young NHL players who are riding out the lockout in the minors.
"We know Saturday nights are a destination for hockey and we have a pre-existing relationship with the AHL," said Navaid Mansuri, vice-president of finance and sports programming at Rogers Media. "We are in the business of selling eyeballs. It's all about getting that audience share that eventually translates into dollars."
TSN, owned by Bell Media, plans to stick to its original plans to air live events on Saturday nights. That includes CFL and NFL playoff games, football and NASCAR.
But TSN also has exclusive rights to Wednesday night NHL games. It will also look to the past to fill the slot, airing a series called "Team Canada Rewind" that will feature the country's national team in various games.
It tested the idea in September when it aired Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and Russia that drew close to 3 million viewers.
"Advertisers who had some hockey money are now looking to see where they may get the biggest bang for their buck," TSN president Stewart Johnston said. "They've been looking for alternatives and we've definitely been benefiting from that."