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IndyCar driver Paul Tracy, center, of Canada, sits in his car during practice for the Grand Prix of Long Beach IndyCar auto race in Long Beach, Calif., Friday, April 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) (Jae C. Hong/AP)
IndyCar driver Paul Tracy, center, of Canada, sits in his car during practice for the Grand Prix of Long Beach IndyCar auto race in Long Beach, Calif., Friday, April 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) (Jae C. Hong/AP)

The Usual Suspects

Sportsnet revs up by adding Indy coverage Add to ...

The milk was barely dry on the finish line for Dario Franchitti’s win Sunday at the Indianapolis 500 when news arrived that Rogers Sportsnet is taking over the Canadian television rights to the famous race and the other stops on the IndyCar race circuit from TSN. While Keith Pelley, president of Rogers Media, declined comment, Usual Suspects has learned that it will be a five-year deal for the network.

The package includes the Honda Indy Toronto and the Edmonton Indy, both events held in July each summer. TSN declined to comment, but sources say the network is content with its NASCAR package, and considers only the Indy 500 is a loss to TSN.

The move shows that even though Rogers and Bell (parent company of TSN) are partners in purchasing Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, there is still a healthy shooting war going on for rights in the Canadian market. TSN has a significant head start over Sportsnet on major properties, holding prestigious events such as the coming Belmont Stakes, the Tour de France, the 2012 European soccer championship, the NCAA basketball tournament, the CFL, major tournaments in golf, plus its national NHL package.

Rogers fires back with its exclusive Toronto Blue Jays, major junior hockey, MLS and regional NHL rights for five of the seven Canadian NHL teams. (The two networks share the Toronto Raptors rights.)

In figures released recently by the Canadian Radio and Television Commission, TSN had its position as the most profitable specialty channel increase over Sportsnet. From a virtual dead heat at $40-million each the year before, TSN jumped 38 per cent to $53-million profit while Sportsnet slipped back to $31-million.

Pelley urges caution over Sportsnet’s numbers. “Our profitability in that year was hurt by the launch of its new Sportsnet One specialty channel,” he told usual Suspects. “We had all of the costs associated with the launch but none of the profits.”

But Rogers chief executive officer Nadir Mohamed has promised to make his Sportsnet brand the most powerful in the nation. The acquisition of the IndyCar series, along with some other properties yet to be announced, is an attempt to make good on that ambitious pledge.

While still trailing TSN, Sportsnet has been happy with its ratings this spring. According to the network, its overall May 2011 to May 2012 rating is up 15 per cent. Coverage of the round robin at the Memorial Cup was up 25 per cent over last year while the final Sunday drew a record 575,000 viewers. Meanwhile, the up-and-down Blue Jays are up 19 per cent.

For May, Sportsnet and Sportsnet One had a combined share of 3.2 per cent of all English viewing, up 28 per cent from last year. “At Sportsnet we continue to close the gap on TSN,” said Pelley, who left CTV, another Bell company, for Sportsnet. “It’s fun watching how our ratings have grown since we took over here in 2010.”

As reported earlier, TSN’s NHL playoff package was hindered this year by unattractive matchups for Canadian audiences, late starts and occasional overtime overruns from CBC’s earlier games. But the network will likely get a boost in June from Euro 2012, U.S. Open golf and early Wimbledon coverage.

For Sportsnet to sustain its growth, it needs the Blue Jays to straighten out and fly right next month. The games against the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox this week will say a lot about whether manager John Farrell’s crew is a contender or simply a .500 team. If the team flounders, parent company Rogers will have a tough decision to make about whether to spend on more talent through trades.

Chain reaction

Rogers continues to assemble a national network using it CITY stations. It recently completed purchase of Saskatchewan TV, CJMT in Montreal and stations in the interior of British Columbia. That leaves only a gap in the Maritimes to complete a national chain that can bid for items such as the national NHL package due in 2014.

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