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opinion

Ever since professional sports crashed to a halt last month, I’ve been thinking about the poor folks at TSN and Sportsnet in the sort of terms that God and Abraham argued over Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible.

In Genesis, Chapter 18, you’ll recall, God reveals that he – sorry, I mean He – intends to destroy the twin cities for their sins. Horrified, Abraham tries to negotiate. What if there are 50 righteous people there, he asks God: Would He spare the cities then? Sure, God says. So, er, how about 45 people? asks Abraham, just getting started. Okay, God says. All right, then how about 40? Abraham asks. Yes, fine, comes the reply. Abraham continues in this vein like a reverse auctioneer, reducing the number by 10 until God agrees that if there are as few as 10 righteous souls in Sodom and Gomorrah, he’ll spare everyone.

(Psst: He did not spare everyone.)

For more than five weeks now, TSN and Sportsnet, as well as internet-delivered subscription services such as DAZN, have had no live sports content to offer, prompting for some of their subscribers a Sodom and Gomorrah sort of quandary: How little do I need to watch these channels before I decide to dump them and save the cash?

There’s a dirty little secret at the heart of the sports-TV subscription business: Showing fewer games can actually be better for the bottom line. A couple of weeks ago, a former sports TV executive explained to me that the NHL lockout years were, counterintuitively, some of the most profitable for TSN and Sportsnet, because the networks didn’t have to pay either the rights fees or the production costs for the games they didn’t air. Although their ad revenue dropped, their subscription revenue continued to come in.

And those subscription fees have only gone up: In 2012, Sportsnet earned about $17.30 a customer from subscriptions annually, according to Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission filings. By 2018 – the most recent year for which figures are available – that was up more than 260 per cent, to $45.23 a subscriber. TSN also had a sharp rise, although not as steep, to $43.10 in 2018 from $26.27 a subscriber in 2012. (Those are wholesale prices; cable customers pay perhaps twice that much.)

Sure enough, the fourth quarter 2012 report for Rogers Communications Inc., which owns Sportsnet, found a “$30-million net positive impact from the NHL player lockout.” (That was before Rogers signed its $5.2-billion ,12-year NHL rights deal.) Bell Media, which owns TSN, also cited the three-month lockout as a significant factor for higher profits that quarter.

Still, there’s a difference between no hockey and no anything at all, which is why the programmers at TSN and Sportsnet have been throwing stuff at the wall over the past month like frenzied amateur pasta chefs in hopes that something will stick: E-sports featuring real athletes, gimmicks (TSN’s April Fools slate included the European tram-driver championship, in which trolleys push mammoth bowling-ball-style beach balls careening into oversized pins) and days and days of so-called classic games that are sometimes merely unremarkable, middle-of-the-season matches that were forgotten as soon as they were played.

For the most part, that stuff is empty filler, Styrofoam peanuts to make the package seem bigger; nobody actually thinks you’re going to watch it. But the networks know they need to give subscribers some sense of value, so they’ve been pursuing a two-pronged approach: repackaging old games in ways that create communal events and getting marquee personalities on air as much as possible. TSN has gone one big step further, recently bringing back its nightly SportsCentre news shows, including the midnight bros Jay and Dan. On Monday, it will also bring its afternoon drive-time radio show, Overdrive, back to TV.

“We want to entertain viewers with the most engaging, entertaining content possible, and really provide sports fans with the ability to relive some of their best memories in a time when they need it most,” Shawn Redmond, the vice-president of Discovery Networks and TSN, said in an interview. In many cases that means “presenting big events in stunt form,” such as the Toronto Raptors’ 2019 playoff run (in partnership with Sportsnet) over 24 successive nights. This week, TSN will re-air Bianca Andreescu’s run to the U.S. Open championship from last year.

TSN’s rebroadcast of the Raptors’ win in Game 6 of the NBA Finals a week ago pulled in about 750,000 viewers. Nothing close to the 15.9 million who tuned in to some portion of the game when it aired live last June, but not bad for a rerun.

“I’ve been very pleased with the reach,” Redmond said, using the industry term for the aggregate number of viewers who tune in for any period of time to a single broadcast. While average-minute-audience (AMA) is usually the metric used by broadcast networks whose primary focus is on delivering ads to the largest audience, cable networks such as TSN know that as long as their subscribers tune in for even a fraction of a broadcast – measured by “reach” – they’re probably going to hold on to the service.

And both networks have been packaging the old events with new content, such as last Friday night’s watch party when Jose Bautista joined Sportsnet’s Arash Madani, Hazel Mae and Shi Davidi during that network’s rebroadcast of the madcap “bat flip” from Game 5 of the Blue Jays-Rangers American League Division Series in 2015. When TSN re-aired Mike Weir’s 2003 Masters championship, the network packaged it with a fresh FaceTime interview Bob Weeks did with Weir from his car.

“It’s impossible to replicate the [average-minute-audience] ratings of a period when sports are live,” Redmond said. “But I’ve been really happy with the reach and engagement with our content, and the feedback from viewers and partners.”

The networks are the lucky beneficiaries of two simultaneous shifts: one, technological; the other, aesthetic. Over the past few years, more and more reporters can use their phones as mobile TV cameras. So if a story broke during the day, they would report it as quickly as possible, and the content would be uploaded to a network’s social-media streams and website, rather than waiting to get the reporter into the studio and saving the story for the suppertime broadcast.

“If I think back to the early days of SportsCentre, so much was keyed towards ... that 6 o’clock [broadcast],” said Ken Volden, vice-president and executive producer at TSN, where he is responsible for the network’s in-house production. “Now, you know, if something happens at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, we want it on one of our platforms as soon as we get there.”

“How we view content has been changing or morphing as the platforms morph,” he said, mentioning TSN’s Bar Down broadcast team, which originated on the network’s digital platforms and has found its way onto its TV channels over the past few weeks. “It felt normal, for instance, to do a hockey chat with our Bar Down team, and getting some of the younger NHL players on at 8 o’clock on Instagram, because we were doing that already.”

That aesthetic shift also means we’re likely to cut the network’s biggest names some slack when, say, Jay and Dan try to replicate their in-studio chemistry over the internet and it ends up feeling like one of our family’s awkward Zoom calls.

Still, having them and other old TV friends back on air provides a sense of normalcy, which counts for a lot these days. Is it enough to keep viewers engaged – and more to the point, subscribed?

Only God knows. And maybe even He doesn’t.