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Rogers, BCE set to divvy up MLSE broadcast spoils

Pedestrian pass the Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment headquarters in Toronto.


Soon after taking ownership of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the new owners will sit down at a boardroom table and hold the equivalent of a fantasy hockey draft. Only they won't be choosing players, and the gathering won't feature the nachos and beer that fuel hockey betting pools across the country prior to each season.

Instead, senior executives at Rogers Communications Inc. and BCE Inc. will be fighting over something with much higher stakes – which of their networks gets to broadcast the most desirable games once their current deals expire in 2015.

There are tens of millions of advertising dollars in play, because each game comes with the opportunity to sell commercial time. And while a Thursday night game against the Vancouver Canucks may be a certain ratings hit, somebody also has to fire up the broadcast trucks when the Columbus Blue Jackets come to town.

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Rogers and BCE struck a $1.3-billion deal in December for a 75-per-cent stake in Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd., which owns the Leafs, the Toronto Raptors basketball team, the Toronto FC soccer club and the Air Canada Centre. But the real prize was the broadcasting rights, and ever since the deal was made, observers have wondered how the two rivals would jointly manage the country's leading sports company.

While the deal must still clear the Competition Bureau, the broadcasters need to figure out how to divide the rights to the 51 Leafs games each year they are entitled to show on television (the CBC has the rights to Saturday night games through 2014).

There's nothing fancy about how they will set their schedules. A coin flip, or some similar game of chance, will decide who gets to pick first. Then each side will take turns picking the games they most desire – Rogers will show its matches on Sportsnet, while Bell Media will show its on TSN. They'll need to repeat the process for Raptors and TFC games.

"The MLSE acquisition is an acquisition based on content," Rogers Media president Keith Pelley told a gathering of television professionals at an industry event called TV Day. "I think we are ferocious competitors everywhere else, but we'll be able to come together in this particular area."

While some have wondered how the two competitors will fare as co-owners of such high-profile properties, there is precedent to work together. They joined forces on the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, where they also shared production costs and divvied up events for their networks.

Still, Mr. Pelley acknowledged that the co-operation only extends to scheduling.

"We will compete to have the best broadcasts and we will compete to say our broadcasts are better than those on the other network to hopefully encourage advertisers to come to us and we can come up with creative ways to go across multiple platforms," he said.

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Kevin Crull, president of Bell Media, bristled at suggestions that the deal could prove cumbersome for the two companies to manage given their competitive interests. Winning will be enough to bring them together, he said.

"There is a lot of great content here and fortunately there are people interested in keeping those teams in Canadian hands," he said. "The only way a broadcast network will make money is to see teams get into the playoffs and get beyond the first round. So, we have a common goal in that."

There is some speculation they could try and take the Saturday night rights from CBC when they expire. That's not something CBC intends to see happen, said Kirstine Stewart, executive vice-president of English services.

She said her network targets a broader audience than the sports broadcasters, which makes it an important player in any negotiations.

"What we provide is different from what TSN and Sportsnet does," she said. "We provide a generalized audience, and these guys are at the top of the sports market."

Editor's note: Rogers Communications and BCE have an existing contract for the broadcast rights to Toronto Maple Leafs games. A new process for sharing those rights is to be implemented in 2015. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story online.

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