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Rogers' splashy NHL deal is barely a ripple in sector

Rogers Communications Inc. has deservedly grabbed headlines with its bold, splashy move to acquire the exclusive national Canadian rights to NHL games across all broadcast and digital platforms. The numbers are eye-popping – $5.2-billion for the next 12 years – and the deal represents a huge market coup over arch-rival BCE and its flagship sports cable channel, TSN.

But in the grand scheme of things, including the bottom lines and market value of Canada's telecom, cable and media heavyweights, it counts as little more than a modest ripple in a very large pond. At this point, the media units of the big players account for relatively tiny portions of their overall business. If content has become king in the communications world, it's an awfully quiet reign.

As Dvai Ghose, Canaccord Genuity's head of research, notes, "content ownership has had no discernible positive impact on Rogers, Bell or Shaw and has had no discernible negative impact on Telus, Cogeco and MTS, suggesting that it is indeed an unnecessary distraction for some Canadian cablecos and telcos."

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Still, the Rogers deal stands on its own merits as a groundbreaking one in the hotly competitive world of live sports rights. No media operator in North America has ever before won complete control of a major sport's broadcast and digital footprints, including mobile platforms, Internet streaming, satellite radio, game highlights, video archives and even the NHL's subscription service. And it counts as a big score for the NHL, which rarely breaks through the sports clutter in the U.S. market and once had to give away U.S. rights for little more than a split of ad revenue in order to get a national TV contract.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has spent years trying to expand the NHL's U.S. fan base and national revenue stream, only to be reminded again Tuesday that Canada remains by far the league's most lucrative source of both fans and TV cash. It was the Rogers deal that turned the NHL briefly into the biggest sports story in such key U.S. markets as Chicago and New York, as word spread that each of the league's 30 teams will reap an equal share of the more than $430-million (U.S.) average annual payment from Rogers. By contrast, the league's current U.S. deal with NBC totals $2-billion over 10 years. Players will also be delighted at this rich new source of revenue. The teams' salary cap could rise by more than $3-million a year just from this singular deal.

Analysts should not discount the long-term competitive advantages of Rogers' content strategy, particularly as audiences migrate increasingly to mobile devices. Live sports and highlights packages rank among the most attractive broadcast and digital properties, because of the large, demographically important audiences they deliver. What's more, people prefer watching live sports events, well, live, regardless of when they happen. That means they are less likely to record the programs for later viewing, with the commercials deleted. And if the CRTC ever unbundles cable packages, which channels are customers likely to regard as must-haves? The one with wall-to-wall coverage of Canada's most beloved sport, or the one boasting exclusive rights to the world Tiddlywinks championships?

By parcelling off some of the NHL games to other providers, Rogers will be able to recoup a hefty part of its cost. It has already said the deal would immediately boost its media division's operating profit. But even better numbers await down the road in a drastically altered media landscape.

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