The first pitch has yet to be thrown in Toronto, but Rogers Communications Inc. is already prepared to deem the Blue Jays' season a success.
The team is enjoying a surge of goodwill ahead of next week's season opener, largely because of a decision to boost this year's payroll by about $20-million. The Blue Jays have talked about how Rogers invested the money because fans deserve to see a winning club take to the field, but the company hopes the real return on its investment will come in the form of television ratings and the advertising dollars that follow.
"The decision to increase payroll was not a unilateral decision made because we wanted the Blue Jays to be successful," Keith Pelley, president of Rogers Media, said Wednesday in an interview. "The Blue Jays are ready to pop on the field and are a fashionable brand in Toronto. But there's the pure ticket and merchandise side of things, and there's also what it could do for Sportsnet."
The company's Sportsnet channels (there are six, and Rogers has the broadcast rights to every Blue Jays game) drew an average of 507,000 viewers for each Jays broadcast last year. But Rogers believes it could boost that to nearly a million viewers per broadcast if the team is playing meaningful games late into the season, which would mean it could charge significantly more for advertising.
"If we start winning, we're doing a million viewers a night," Pelley said. "Ratings are nothing more than a form of currency."
The increased revenue would more than compensate for the additional payroll, but the team also expects to see more fans buy tickets to the team's games. The average ticket costs $28, and sources said the team is already expecting to see an increase of at least 5,000 fans per game, bringing the average attendance closer to 30,000 and bringing in millions more for the team and its parent company. (The cable giant won't release season-ticket figures, but said "sales are up.")
As a cable company that owns media properties, Rogers is in a unique position. It is the exclusive broadcaster, but it also sells its Sportsnet channels to other cable and satellite companies to offer to their customers. And because it has a substantial wireless division, it's looking for ways to deliver Jays content via mobile devices in a way that wins new customers and encourages them to switch to the company's cellphone plans.
"On the communications side of the company, we can see a win in terms of market share and revenue," Dave Purdy, senior vice-president of content, said at a press event the company held Wednesday in Toronto. "On the media side, it shows up with better advertising revenue and broader distribution of our channels – how many more people will pay for Sportsnet."
Rogers has put considerable effort into building its sports brands over the last several years, with an eye to pass Bell Media's TSN as the premiere sports channel on Canadian television. Rogers owns the Blue Jays, and last year took a 37-per-cent stake in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors and Toronto FC) along with Bell.
Rogers is also awaiting approval from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on its acquisition of The Score, a television channel it will rebrand to fit its brand once the deal closes. Rogers hasn't said what it will do with the country's third most popular sports channel, but sources said the company is eyeing The Score's downtown Toronto studio as a venue for interactive postgame broadcasts because of its close proximity to the Rogers Centre.
Rogers has also invested in programming to fill in the gaps left when baseball and hockey aren't available, most notably buying the troubled Grand Slam of Curling and using it to form an events division centred on staging events it could then broadcast.
The company isn't confining its ambitions to broadcasting sports that actually exist. Broadcast president Scott Moore said he was engaged in talks with "a think-tank centre to create a whole new sport that we would actually own."
He did not elaborate, but vowed that he was being serious and that the discussions involve "some great Olympic athletes."