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Rogers teams up with TVA Sports in Quebec

Christinne Muschi/Reuters

By the time Rogers Communications Inc. was granted a licence for a French-language sports specialty channel this week, the company had already decided it wouldn't use it – at least for now. But that doesn't mean Rogers is staying out of French Canada altogether.

Rogers is teaming with Quebecor Inc. to boost its new sports channel, TVA Sports, when it launches in mid-September. The agreement will see Sportsnet and TVA Sports unite for co-productions for both channels, and most importantly, to act as a meaningful bidder against BCE Inc.-owned TSN and its French-language counterpart, RDS, in the fierce competition over the rights to broadcast sports events in Canada.

"In Quebec, it was a monopolistic situation for many years," said Pierre Dion, the chief executive officer of Quebecor subsidiary TVA Group Inc. Revenues for the RDS French-language service have been steadily growing, and the channel earned $17.8-million in profits before interest and taxesin 2010.

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"For the sports fan, for the industry, for all viewers, this partnership is a good thing … now there's going to be two players in Quebec," Mr. Dion said.

In Canada, rights deals are often predicated on the broadcaster being able to offer distribution of the sports events in both languages and a nationwide reach, said Scott Moore, president of broadcasting for Rogers Media. Until now, the only broadcaster that was able to offer that was TSN, the number-one sports channel that Sportsnet is attempting to compete with more aggressively.

It's a change in strategy for Sportsnet, which has been working recently to build a sports media empire under a single brand – with the launch last summer of a second network, Sportsnet One, the acquisition last month of Setanta Sports Canada, which will be rebranded as Sportsnet World, the branding of its FAN radio stations in Toronto and Calgary with the Sportsnet name and the coming launch this fall of Sportsnet Magazine.

But with TVA's existing market base as the largest broadcast network in Quebec, competing with both RDS and a new TVA-branded sports channel presented a challenge.

"We wanted to be able to offer full national distribution to our rights holding partners … but we don't have the strength in the Quebec market that TVA does," Mr. Moore said. "So it made more sense to work with TVA."

The French channel will broadcast Blue Jays baseball games in French, which Sportsnet shows in English. (Rogers also owns the team.) The agreement also gives TVA sports regional rights to Ottawa Senators hockey games in French (Sportsnet holds English rights) to build up the schedule of the new channel. TVA Group will pay Rogers for some other content that it will supply for the channel as well, Mr. Dion said.

TVA Group was granted the licence to launch TVA Sports in February, 2010, thanks to a change in regulatory policy two years earlier that opened up mainstream news and sports channels in Canada to greater competition.

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