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Bruce Dowbiggin

Adding Canadian teams tricky for TV Add to ...

The Globe and Mail has been examining the potential for NHL hockey returning to Quebec City Winnipeg and adding a second team in Southern Ontario. While it would be a happy moment for Canadians to see both the Jets and Nordiques repatriated - and a Southern Ontario franchise added - there are a number of red flags on both sides of the border when adding Canadian media markets of around 750,000 people.

In the Canadian market (where there are three years remaining on the current NHL TV contract), the issues are distribution and dividing a limited market. "It's a complicated answer with regional versus national rights and some scheduling issues," says Scott Moore, CBC vice-president for sports and sales. "Our position is that more teams in Canada would be good for general interest in the NHL, and [for]local and regional sponsorship sales in any new markets. Certainly in playoffs there would be a greater chance of increased Canadian team presence, which would have a positive affect on ratings."

In other words, getting exposure for all Canadian teams on the Hockey Night In Canada slot would be a balancing act, trying to preserve large ratings in markets such as Toronto or Vancouver while not ignoring Winnipeg or Quebec City. (Not that someone might ever politicize CBC's choices each weekend. Sure.) New teams would also mean additional production fees for small-market teams that don't justify the new expense.

Here, new media could help in the future, as downloading games via CBC's website could mitigate some of the congestion and resentment in the generation that is more tech savvy.

The current availability of high-definition carriers in Canada is restricted by the current NHL TV deal, meaning a second Southern Ontario team or one in Winnipeg or Quebec City would have to fight for time on an existing Rogers Sportsnet regional channel, TSN or RDS, which are already committing major coverage to existing NHL teams. There are some local or regional channels available, but the NHL content likely can't generate the revenues that dramas or comedies can.

What will be interesting in negotiations for a new deal is whether Bettman believes two extra teams - even small-market teams - should be worth more in the contract with Canadian broadcasters who will be adding to production costs with very little growth in the already saturated hockey viewership.

For U.S. NHL owners, two or three more Canadian cities - at the cost of a like number of U.S. cities - would hurt TV ratings and other media platforms, because those markets aren't included in Nielsen ratings. "They [NBC, Versus]understand as our partners that that could happen," Bettman told David Naylor of The Globe and Mail. "Just like the CBC and TSN understand that there are teams in the U.S. that may have successful years that effect the games they carry in the playoffs. And in the CBC's case the Stanley Cup finals. It's variable. But that's why it starts with how good the game is."

Going to solvent Canadian markets might reduce the number of teams getting large revenue-sharing cheques, but it would also represent the potential loss of top-10 media markets in Phoenix, Atlanta and Miami (one reason the league is fighting so hard to preserve them). U.S. NHL owners could rightly ask commissioner Gary Bettman how retreating to Canadian cities with fewer than a million people represents progress - as defined by Bettman's master expansion plan.

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