On a scale of 1 to 10, how much are you looking forward to Saturday night’s broadcast of the Stanley Cup final on Sportsnet? Before you answer, I suppose I should clarify that I’m talking about Game 2 from the 1991 Minnesota vs. Pittsburgh series.
What’s that? You’re more of a tennis fan? Then head on over to TSN for a double-header of Wimbledon’s men’s finals the same night. First up, it’s Marin Cilic vs. Roger Federer – from 2017. After that, you can catch an earlier vintage Federer, taking on Mark Philippoussis in 2003. (Spoiler alert: They’re both three-set matches. I’ll let you guess who wins.)
To be fair, Saturday nights in early July aren’t exactly peak time for pro sports, so TSN and Sportsnet might as well burn off a few reruns from the vaults while everyone is enjoying the summer weather, away from their TVs. Still, we’re now more than 16 weeks into the global sports shutdown (give or take some European soccer and a charity golf match or two), and a lot of viewers have got into the habit of not tuning into live sports – or, apparently, any sports at all.
Not that you’d know that if you’ve looked at your TV bill lately. Since the middle of March, Canadians who subscribe to sports channels through a cable, IPTV, or satellite service have likely paid somewhere in the neighbourhood of half a billion dollars for programming that most of them aren’t watching.
If subscription figures filed with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for 2018 (the most recent year available) have held more or less steady, Rogers Sports and Media has likely taken in about $133-million across its Sportsnet, Sportsnet One, and Sportsnet 360 services since March 12, when the NBA paused its season and the major leagues sent everyone home to isolate. Bell Media, which owns TSN and its French-language sibling RDS, probably took in about $139-million. Subscribers paid about $22-million to Quebecor Inc’s TVA Sports. Cable companies mark up those prices by anywhere between 50 and 100 per cent.
The channels, naturally, don’t like to talk about this. When I asked Bell Media who I could speak with about the issue, a spokesperson emailed to say it didn’t have anyone available for an interview.
The email then went on to assert that TSN and RDS “have continued to offer great value to our subscribers in a multitude of ways,” and offered a list of live sports that would soon be coming to the services. It also noted TSN had increased the number of news and information shows it had picked up from ESPN, had launched the TSN Doc Collection comprising more than 200 sports documentaries, and had piled on other special programming such as NASCAR esports.
(Notably, the season’s one breakout piece of sports programming, ESPN’s Michael Jordan doc series The Last Dance, streamed in Canada on Netflix rather than one of the conventional channels.)
Rogers, too, demurred, saying in an email that it wasn’t interested in commenting for this story. But after I noted in an email how much money it had taken in from Sportsnet subscribers, it responded with a more comprehensive reply, saying it had “continued to provide customers and audiences with great value through unique original programming and innovative, interactive fan content.”
The email cited Top of Her Game, an interview series hosted by Tara Slone, which launched last Sunday; In Conversation with Ron MacLean – which, when it launched in April, was only available on Sportsnet’s website and its Facebook and YouTube channels, rather than TV; and Watch Parties: rebroadcasts of old games featuring commentary by guests such as Jose Bautista and Denis Shapovalov.
The note added: “We look forward to the impending return to play of the NHL, MLB and NBA and bringing those live games back into the homes of Canadians across the country.”
So do we. But that still doesn’t clear up why we’re paying for services that most of us, according to survey data cited by Scotiabank in a recent research note, haven’t used in months. As many as 50 per cent of us have simply stopped tuning in to any sports channels; viewing by the rest of us has flagged, as well.
As it happens, Rogers recognized people wouldn’t want to pay for Sportsnet if there were no live sports on TV. That’s why, as soon as the pandemic hit in the middle of March, it waived the $20-a-month fee for customers of Sportsnet NOW, its app-based streaming service designed for people who don’t subscribe to traditional cable. It was smart marketing: It knows it’s a lot easier to suspend payments for a few months than to have to go out and re-sign customers who have abandoned the service.
DAZN, the direct-to-consumer global sports-streaming service, also suspended its fees when the pandemic hit.
But Rogers and Bell haven’t offered the same consideration to their conventional TV customers. Perhaps that’s because doing so might draw unwanted attention to the machinations of specialty-channel pricing, which in Canada are as impenetrable as the politics of papal-succession plans. The prices that people pay for TSN, Sportsnet, RDS and TVA Sports vary depending on which cable company you’re with, and which programming bundle you buy. And with most of the cable operators being owned by the parent companies of the sports channels, the questions can quickly get uncomfortable.
But those same sports channels are also a primary driver for traditional cable subscriptions, which most Canadian households still have. In other words, the survival of the Canadian television ecosystem depends in part on sports returning to our screens – and soon. In the scheme of things, then, it’s hard to know why all involved aren’t doing more to keep subscribers placid and unquestioning, even at the cost of a few hundred million dollars in foregone revenue.
If cable customers haven’t cut the cord en masse over the past few months, you have to imagine they likely will soon. If that happens, do they ever come back?