If Rogers Communications Inc. went all out to win the broadcasting and digital rights to National Hockey League games, so did Quebecor Inc. The media company's affiliate, TVA Group Inc., will pay Rogers more than $120-million a year to become the official French-language broadcaster of the NHL in a 12-year deal valued at about $1.5-billion, The Globe and Mail has learned.
Pierre Dion, president and chief executive officer of TVA Group, refused to confirm or deny the value of the side deal that was negotiated between TVA and Rogers as part of the bigger $5.2-billion deal between the Toronto-based media group and the NHL. With this transaction, TVA's struggling all-sports channel, TVA Sports, will take the best Montreal Canadiens games out of the hands of Réseau des Sports, Bell Media's French-language sports network.
"I will not confirm any numbers, but we are talking about a 12-year deal that will be beneficial across all of our platforms," Mr. Dion said.
"It will increase our number of subscribers to TVA Sports. And it will allow us to market a unique advertising offer through our TVA network, LCN [an all-news channel] and other chains. This is all part of our bigger business plan," he added.
TVA has acquired the French-language broadcasting rights to all of the so-called national games played by Canadian NHL teams. The national games comprise the sought-after Saturday games, as well as the Wednesday and Sunday games.
The deal also gives TVA the French TV rights to all playoff matches, as well as the NHL's All-Star Game. The broadcaster intends to launch a second all-sports channel just to air them.
"This is part of the biggest deal in Canadian television history," Mr. Dion said.
The Quebecor affiliate also obtained the digital rights associated with those hockey games, which can be shown on all devices, and could also benefit Vidéotron Ltée, Quebecor's cable and wireless operator. "We can offer this content on any device and at any time, as it is hard to predict how things will evolve in the next 12 years," Mr. Dion said.
TVA Sports has been bleeding money. Launched in September of 2011, the specialty channel, which makes most of its revenue through subscriptions, lost $20.7-million before taxes in 2012 on sales of $10.9-million, according to figures from the national broadcast regulator. It had slightly more than 1.6 million subscribers.
In contrast, archrival Réseau des Sports, or RDS as it is known in Quebec, made $25.7-million in pretax profit on sales of $167.4-million. With 3.5 million subscribers, the company that held the rights to all of the Montreal Canadiens games over the past 11 years is one of the most lucrative television chains in the country.
TVA Sports is guaranteed at least 22 national Habs games as of the next hockey season. But not all is lost for Bell Media's RDS. The Montreal Canadiens could decide to opt partly out of the NHL deal and sell the rights to its 60 so-called regional games on its own. Those games are broadcast regionally and are played on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday.
Also up for grabs are the eight preseason Canadiens games that RDS used to broadcast and that attracted a respectable 500,000 viewers on average, compared with around 750,000 viewers for a regular season game.
Should the Habs sell its regional broadcasting rights on its own, it would open a new bidding war between Quebecor and Bell, Quebec's two dominant media and telecom empires. But that would reduce the price paid by Quebecor, by an amount that has already been agreed upon, according to Mr. Dion.
The Canadiens haven't decided yet how they intend to play their game. The call will be made at the operations level, by Habs executives, and not by the board of directors, where Bell is present as a minority shareholder of the Montreal hockey team, The Globe was told.
"We have no deadline on the sale of the regional rights, nor do we have a timeline as to when we expect to make an announcement," said Donald Beauchamp, the team's senior vice-president, communications.
A spokesman for RDS declined to comment on the deal.
RDS will need to hold on to those regional games and land other sought-after sports rights to keep its subscriber base, said Sylvain Lafrance, adjunct professor at the HEC Montreal business school and a former executive vice-president of French services at Radio-Canada, the French-language service of the CBC.
"This is a hard blow for RDS. There is enough room for two all-sports French channels, but they are going to have to work really hard to keep their subscribers' loyalty," Mr. Lafrance said.
QUEBEC CITY AND THE NHL
A latticework of concrete beams is beginning to rise around a quartet of vertical elevator shafts, and with each passing week it looks more like a National Hockey League rink.
The only thing that Quebec City's $400-million multipurpose arena project, which is still two years from its expected completion date, needs now is an anchor tenant.
The announcement of a new partnership between NHL rights-holder Rogers and Quebecor's TVA Sports suggests the NHL may be a step closer to returning to the city it left nearly two decades ago.
Quebecor already holds the lease and arena management contract on the new building (which is expected to bear the Vidéotron brand), so signing on as Rogers' French-language contractor should only help entrench the relationship Quebecor chairman Pierre Karl Péladeau has with the league.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was at pains to squelch any talk of imminent expansion, saying on Monday, "It's not something we are embarking on in a formal process."
That may be, but Mr. Péladeau has made little secret of his desire to bring a hockey team to Quebec City, the arena construction is ticking along, and the media empire he controls is making a big play to dominate sports broadcasting in Quebec.
The money-losing TVA Sports network was founded in the fall of 2011 and has struggled to establish a foothold, but grabbing hold of the national broadcasting rights for the hottest sports property in the province – the Montreal Canadiens – will surely be transformative.
The dots are plainly visible, even if Mr. Bettman told reporters on Tuesday that at this point, they "are not connectable."