Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Jordan Banks became the president of the renamed Rogers Sports & Media last September.HO/The Canadian Press

A few months ago, the folks at Rogers Media, the TV-and-radio operation which also owns the Toronto Blue Jays, a big chunk of the colossus Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and the national rights to NHL games, quietly tweaked their name to better emphasize their increasing focus on sports. Under new president Jordan Banks, who joined last September, Rogers Media would thereafter be known as Rogers Sports & Media.

Yup: Rogers S&M™.

Which, in retrospect, is perhaps the perfect name for a company that decided to go all in on sports just as a microscopic pathogen decided that professional sports would, for the foreseeable future, be sitting this one out.

I mean, if Rogers is going to live in a world of hurt, you hope it’s at least getting some perverse pleasure out of it.

To be fair, there may also be a bit of a pleasure for some of us watching from the sidelines: NASCAR fans aren’t the only ones who enjoy a car crash or two. (Of course, with the racist convulsions it’s experiencing these days, NASCAR doesn’t even need to put vehicles on the track to serve up its own can’t-look-away car crash.)

On Monday morning, Banks kicked off what used to be known as Canada’s TV upfronts, the week in which domestic commercial broadcasters would invite the advertising community to a series of splashy sales presentations previewing their biggest shows for the fall season. Of course, those presentations also included opportunities to rub elbows with the stars of those Los Angeles-based shows.

Time was, the booze, food and treats would flow freely in one direction. I remember attending one Rogers upfront on the field of the Rogers Centre in Toronto, in which hundreds of ad folk shrieked with joy when then-Rogers Media president Keith Pelley directed them to find a pair of Blue Jays tickets under each of their seats. (This goes back a few years, when there was still pleasure to be had in free Jays tickets.)

The hope – and quite often the reality – was that the million-dollar ad buys would flow in the other.

Last year, though, Rogers cancelled its upfront, citing budget cuts. This year, understandably, it opted for virtual presentations, which on Monday morning meant Banks sitting for a socially-distanced “fireside chat” on the Hockey Night in Canada set with his employee, on-air Sportsnet personality Hazel Mae, followed by a half hour of tap dancing.

Sorry, I meant a half hour of Banks trying his best to answer reporters’ questions for which there are as yet no good answers grounded in the world as it actually exists.

Still, presidents of companies are optimists by their nature; for Banks, hope springs eternal. He used to be the president of Facebook Canada, but he got out in 2017, before most people began to grasp the company’s cancerous effect on democracy: Clearly, he’s a smart guy.

“We’re spending a vast majority of our time planning for games to happen over the course of the summer, and we have not spent very much time at all planning for what happens if they don’t,” he explained near the top of the event.

“It’s certainly not been easy. If you were in one of our remote whiteboard rooms [you would see] we literally have 30 different scenarios,” he said. “For example: Hockey comes back, where are the hub cities, what are the number of games, where do Canadian teams go and how far don’t they go? Because obviously we have pretty vested interests in [Canadian] teams going further in the playoffs. And so, all of those scenarios play out, and we have solutions and structures around all of them. “

What, he was asked, do his whiteboards look like if there are no North American pro team sports in 2020? After all, even if COVID-19 cases in Canada are slowly going down, the likelihood of sports starting up again depends on everything going like clockwork. But then, so do space shuttle flights, and it just takes one faulty O-ring to blow the whole enterprise to smithereens.

“It’s been a bit jarring over the course of the last few days,” Banks acknowledged, referring to the news about MLB and NHL players, including the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews, testing positive.

“I felt at least that we had some real momentum around the formalization of process and procedures to get players playing again, and clearly we’ve taken a bit of a setback over the last few days, and as a result, it’s forced us to go back to our whiteboards and say, ‘Okay, what happens if those starts are delayed, or what happens if those starts don’t start?‘”

And so, he suggested, a non-started start may just be an opportunity to start a different kind of start. Over the past few months, Rogers has started using a lot of what the industry calls “assets,” in ways you might have thought had ended: Taking footage from, say, old Blue Jays games and broadcasting them with DVD-style live commentary from key figures who were involved at the time.

“We are really blessed, frankly, with a set of rights that gives us incredible footage from days gone past, incredible access to the athletes and coaches who participated in some of those events,” Banks said. “And so, what it’s going to force us to do is rethink the way that we make content, rethink the way that we package content. Take advantage of all the assets – some of which may have been taken for granted or be in an archive – bring it to the forefront and do different things on different platforms to test and learn. And one of the saving graces of COVID really has been, it’s given us permission to test and learn.”

And tap dance, too. Which is fun to watch. For a time.