Ryan Kelly realizes he probably shouldn’t be equating the experience of trying to watch hockey broadcasts with what it’s like to buy marijuana these days. Still, it’s hard to ignore the parallels.
Kelly, 40, is a lifelong Toronto Maple Leafs fan: He has a kid named after Morgan Rielly, for goodness sake. “I just want to turn on my TV and have the game be there,” he said recently, a couple of days after turning on his TV and discovering the game in fact wasn’t there, because he’d bumped up against a regional blackout.
He used to watch hockey on TV all the time, back when he had cable. But last year he looked at his Rogers bill and realized he was spending something like $80 a month, mainly for channels he and his family never watched. So he joined hundreds of thousands of other Canadians, and cut the cord. He found some free online sites that offered even better hockey coverage than he’d had before: great picture quality, and the ability to toggle between the home broadcasters for the Leafs and whichever team they were playing.
But when the playoffs came around, the pirate sites kept glitching, so he ponied up and bought a subscription to the Sportsnet app.
It was a disappointment. “I feel like I went from not having to pay, for a service that was very good – to having to pay, for a service that’s not great. It’s like when they legalized marijuana. There’s cheaper, better product on the illegal market,” he said.
And one month into the new season, Kelly hasn’t yet fully navigated which games he has access to through Sportsnet, which ones he can catch free on CBC or CityTV via a digital antenna or the individual channels’ apps, and which ones he’s missing because he doesn’t subscribe to TSN, which carries half of the Leafs’ 52 regionally broadcast games
He’s not alone. Now in the 10th season of Rogers’s $5.2-billion, 12-year deal for the national NHL rights, which realigned the Canadian viewing landscape, many hockey fans remain confused about how to access their favourite sport. The challenges have been compounded by a shift from cable to streaming, in which cord-cutters no longer automatically receive the two dominant sports channels, which together carry all of the games of their local teams but often black them out from viewers in other markets.
In the United States, hockey fans face even a more confusing landscape: New York Rangers fans who want to see all 82 regular-season games have to access at least four separate services.
A new global report suggests an increasing number of would-be viewers are getting lost or frustrated by the changes: almost 60 per cent of sports fans say that, in an ever more fragmented media universe, they find it difficult either to find or to afford what they want to watch. Leagues and their broadcast partners are beginning to realize the dynamic is a threat to the growth they depend on to sustain the economic models underpinning their industries.
Streaming was supposed to make things cheaper and easier for sports fans, but, for many, the opposite is turning out to be true.
Millions of viewers have left the old system behind. From 2017 to 2022, approximately 2.1 million of the 8.1 million paying customers – or 25.5 per cent – who subscribed to TSN through cable or satellite providers cancelled that sports service, according to data disclosed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Sportsnet’s main service had a similar decrease, losing 1.7 million of its 7.5 million customers, or almost 23 per cent, over that same period.
Many of those customers have migrated over to the companies’ digital streaming services, which do not publicly disclose subscription figures.
They have done so, even though prices aren’t necessarily better.
Viewers in Toronto who subscribe to cable service through either Bell or Rogers can pay $25 a month for a sport package that includes TSN and Sportsnet, giving them access to all of the Leafs games. (They would also have to pay for at least basic cable.)
Non-cable customers, meanwhile, would pay $20 a month for each of the Sportsnet+ Standard and TSN streaming services, or $40 a month. (Those services can also be purchased on an annual basis, for $180 and $200, respectively, for a total cost of $380 a year.)
Tim McGhie, a Toronto-based photographer, has decided it’s not worth it. “I love hockey,” he says – he plays pickup games, and helps coach an under-12 Double-A team. “I just find that, to sit down and watch an entire hockey game, I have to be invested in the team, and the team that I’m invested in is blacked out for 90 per cent of their games.”
He grew up following the Montreal Canadiens – they were his mother’s favourite team – but, living in Toronto, Habs games have always been a challenge to follow. After Rogers took over the national rights, he says he found it even harder to find and access the Canadiens games. His interest began to wane.
He’s considered buying a subscription to Sportsnet+ Premium, a streaming service that carries more than 1,000 games a year and caters to fans such as him, whose favourite teams are based in a different local market. That would give him the full season: 50 games produced by TSN, the Habs’ regional broadcaster, along with the team’s 32 games broadcast nationally by Sportsnet. But the $250-a-year price tag makes him blanch, especially since, like an increasing number of fans nowadays, he says he tends to “float in and out,” with his viewing – catching a few minutes here and there rather than whole games.
So, instead, he’ll just watch the Habs whenever Sportsnet chooses to feature the team on its free Saturday Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts, on either CBC or CityTV.
That weakening engagement is becoming a growing concern for pro leagues around the world, according to a new study. Fifty-nine per cent of respondents to a survey conducted by the global consulting firm Altman Solon said either they didn’t know on which platform or channel they could find the live broadcasts of their favourite sport, the broadcasts were blacked out, or they were too expensive.
“There’s an interesting changing consumption behaviour, related to sport,” said David Dellea, a director in the firm’s Zurich office.
“Increasingly, premium sports have been put behind paywalls,” he said. “This has brought monetization up. But the reach” – that is, the total viewing audience – “has become lower. When you combine this with an increasing interest in content highlights,” rather than live viewing, “and general cord-cutting, this is obviously a combination that is starting to get dangerous.”
Dellea noted that, in Switzerland, where he is based, “ice hockey used to be the nation’s sport, along with football. Now, for years it’s been behind a paywall [subscription]. It’s fading. We have people consuming increasing amounts of highlights. We’re fostering that, making it difficult to access live, so we’re compounding that trend.”
Earlier this week, Brett Sturley and his wife, Rebecca, stood in a food court near Scotiabank Arena in downtown Toronto, about half an hour before a Leafs game – he wore a Tavares jersey, she a Rielly jersey – and talked about why they don’t watch much of their favourite team on TV.
“We don’t have cable,” he said. “Cable packages suck, and there’s not really live streaming sports services that are any good. There are out-of-market games and you can’t access them. That’s the main point. The cost of it, as well.”
The couple, who had driven in for the game from Beaverton, Ont., said they had considered subscribing to packages such as Sportsnet+ but found the cost prohibitive. “Every time I look at it, it’s like, this is more than I want to pay to watch hockey,” he said. When streaming options first came on the market, “streaming was better. Now streaming’s more expensive [than cable]. And it has commercials. And it’s more restrictive.”
Still, he admitted, they do subscribe to TSN’s streaming service, mainly for the network’s golf coverage. And when Leaf games are on CBC – that is, when they’re free – they’ll tune in, especially during the playoffs. “That led to us watching a lot more,” he said. “We never missed a game.”