During Scott Moore's first stint in charge of the storied Hockey Night in Canada franchise, he remembers the show travelling to Winkler, Man., in 2008 for Hockey Day in Canada. A CBC crew brought Don Cherry and the gang to town, population about 10,000, for a day of festivities and backyard rink folklore interspersed between a triple-header broadcast of NHL games in other Canadian cities.
"When you left, people are saying great things about the CBC," Mr. Moore said in an interview this week. "They just feel good about what the CBC brings to Canada."
Now, Moore is back overseeing Hockey Night again and trying to recapture that magic feeling for Rogers Communications Inc., the telecom and media giant that gambled $5.2-billion last fall as a starting point to assemble the most formidable engine for broadcasting hockey that Canada has ever seen.
For the next 12 years, Rogers will be a seven-days-a-week hockey factory, having landed sweeping rights to air the NHL in Canada late in 2013. The company plans to produce 553 regular-season games plus every playoff game on 13 channels and a range of platforms, making full use of its TV, Internet, wireless, radio and print arms.
A key plank in the strategy will be Rogers Hometown Hockey, a travelling 25-town tour with a mobile studio tied to a Sunday evening game broadcast. It is designed to tap the spirit and grassroots feel of Hockey Day on a weekly basis, burnishing the Rogers brand. The company has been restructuring under new CEO Guy Laurence, who feels Rogers has "neglected our customers over recent years" and is bent on improving the firm's image.
"When Ron MacLean and the Rogers Hometown Hockey crew leave Lethbridge or Red Deer or Burnaby, I want them to think, 'Geez, we actually really like those Rogers people – they're sort of cool,'" said Moore, now president of Sportsnet and NHL properties for Rogers.
The Ontario-based communications behemoth's first season as the self-proclaimed new home for hockey kicks off Wednesday, when the Montreal Canadiens travel to Toronto to open the NHL season against the Maple Leafs. The rivalry between Canada's two most eternally loyal fan bases is sure to draw big ratings.
But for Rogers's multibillion-dollar bet to pay off over the longer term, the company must find ways to draw many more Canadians into the already crowded tent of hockey spectatorship – and not just when the Leafs or Habs are playing.
The plan, aside from putting more games on more networks on more nights of the week, involves an ambitious array of "storytelling" that puts the game's stars front and centre, tells deeper stories about their lives and keeps the fan's focus on the ice and in the locker room.
The labour strife and revenue squabbles have often stolen the spotlight in recent years. But growing the game – one of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's favourite euphemisms – is hardly automatic in hockey-mad Canada. The CBC spent decades building and broadening the Saturday night audience. Sundays are already packed with NFL football, big-budget dramas and live awards shows. And weeknight ratings still depend heavily on who's playing.
The company will be awash in hockey, with every corner of the business expected to leverage the rights somehow. All 475 Rogers retail stores are set to sell hockey. Today's Parent magazine will have a hockey-focused feature every issue – how to create a hockey birthday party, for example. Even The Shopping Channel, which is Rogers-owned, is now hawking 400 exclusive NHL products.
"We need to, over the course of 12 years, grow our audience," said Gord Cutler, senior vice-president of NHL production for Rogers. "We need to get to different demographics."
'It's a lot of freakin' hockey'
Growing the audience also means keeping the customers Rogers already has on board. In 2010, the core Sportsnet channels had more than 9.1 million subscribers, but that figure has been falling, and dropped 3.3 per cent last year to just under 8.5 million.
Some Canadians have begun cutting the cord on their cable subscriptions, turning instead to online services, and stemming the churn of customers leaving the system is a top priority across the Rogers empire. The company increasingly sees live events as the lifeblood of broadcasting because they are considered DVR-proof – few people tape them to watch later, skipping through commercials – and sports in particular can form powerful emotional bonds with viewers, making them catnip to advertisers.
Keeping people hooked up to traditional television means a larger potential audience for advertisers, whether on the Sportsnet specialty channels, the City networks on basic cable and satellite or the CBC on Saturday nights. Keith Pelley, president of Rogers Media, is fond of saying "ratings are nothing more than a form of currency."
Getting people to watch the games isn't such an issue. The NHL is far and away Canadians' favourite sports league, and 59 per cent of TV viewers watched at least one NHL game a week last season – 39 per cent watched more than that – according to Charlton Strategic Research, which surveys hockey viewing habits.
Rogers hopes to pull even those hardcore fans in deeper by offering more games on all nights of the week, star-driven coverage of Canadian teams on Wednesday nights, and up to eight simultaneous games on Saturdays.
"If the Leafs are blowing out the [New York] Rangers, you've got three other choices to go to, nationally, that are easy to find," Moore said.
But "it's a lot of freakin' hockey," as one Rogers insider put it to The Globe and Mail. And it remains unproven how much more hockey Canadians can watch without feeling saturated.
After 30 years in the business, Cutler has never seen signs of overload, but with the volume of hockey soon to be on the air, he concedes, "we were concerned with viewer fatigue."
To keep its coverage from feeling stale, Rogers recently unveiled a new $4.5-million, 11,000-square-foot studio housed, awkwardly to some, on the 10th floor of the CBC, which Rogers kept in the fold as a broadcast partner for at least the next four years.
It is actually several studios in one, capable of broadcasting games in three different regions at once, with new spaces for hosts to stand up and give demonstrations and a 38-by-11-foot curved screen nicknamed Goliath. It has an interview room for new anchor George Stroumboulopoulos, one of many former CBC-ers recruited this summer, and a new stand-up desk for Cherry and MacLean to continue Coach's Corner.
"It came back through the research that people wanted more games on more platforms, and that's what we're doing," Pelley said.
Teaching Canadians to love hockey (again)
One of the many reasons Rogers is believed to have landed the big broadcast deal is that it promised to share a common vision with the NHL: The league and the company are both keen to turn the page on an era when "the business of the game" – lockouts and labour issues, team relocation rumours and salary caps – often grabbed the headlines.
"Yes, they're important, but I don't tune in on a Saturday night or a Sunday night or a Wednesday night to find out about that," Moore said. "I want to see Jonathan Toews score a great goal."
That's music to the league's ears. Rogers and the NHL constantly call each other "partners." Almost as often, Moore clarifies that "we're not cheerleaders," but the editorial priority is "celebrating the game." With the memory of the 2012-13 lockout fading and a collective agreement in place that guarantees labour peace until at least 2020, both partners think the time is right to get fans, new and old, emotionally invested by focusing on players and personalities.
Hometown Hockey, for instance, is a family-oriented, two-day event full of personal stories about stars, communities and youth hockey – all of which resonate with major advertisers such as Tim Hortons and Scotiabank, whose campaigns highlight their support for the game at the local level.
"[The show is] going to take a bit of time to grow," Pelley said. "But over time, I think it'll be an habitual part of Canadians' lives."
It also reaches out to a key potential source of new viewers: new immigrants who, in many cases, are "looking for ways to be part of Canada" and to be "demonstrably Canadian," said Gord Hendren, president of Charlton research.
Through its OMNI stations, Rogers will continue the Punjabi play-by-play the CBC offered and introduce new multicultural and multilingual segments to initiate new Canadians to the game. Hockey 101, a series of vignettes explaining common terms and rules of hockey, debuted recently in eight languages including Cantonese, Portuguese and Tagalog, with 14 more to follow.
"I think it's a huge untapped market," Moore said. "It's a very multicultural country and we're now competing with basketball and soccer. We need to be able to bring those viewers in."
Rogers's multiplatform heft should help, too. The company will stream games to tablets, smartphones and laptops, and research shows new Canadians "have a very high affinity for new technology, for mobile technology," Hendren said.
Another major challenge for pro sports is "engaging young people whose attention spans, interestingly, are waning on some sports," Bettman, the NHL's commissioner, told an audience at the Canadian Club last month.
According to Charlton's research, 95 per cent of NHL viewers still watch games on TV, but most now watch on at least two screens. Last season, 62 per cent accessed the NHL from a computer and 30 per cent on a mobile device, and those numbers will only grow as online usage skews younger.
At the same time, the slice of fans who follow the NHL through Facebook rose from 34 per cent to 47 per cent since the 2010-11 season, and Twitter engagement with the league grew even faster. It's now Rogers's job to help the NHL grab the attention of people compulsively checking their smartphones.
"That younger group is a challenge for everybody," Hendren said.
But does the math add up? After all the changes in where and how Canadians watch hockey, inside Rogers the gamble will still be judged largely by ratings, financial returns and how much it helps retain customers by bolstering the brand.
The rights deal costs Rogers an average of about $433-million annually over the life of the contract, before it has spent a dime to produce games or hire talent. The industry consensus is that the deal might lose money in the early years but should turn profitable over its life.
And that is why branding matters so much in the short term. In its latest quarter, the company added wireless and Internet customers at a sluggish rate, and lost 33,000 basic-cable subscribers. It is betting on hockey's halo effect to keep people in its system, especially as the battle for ratings won't be won easily.
Last season, rival TSN drew 1.1 million viewers to an average Wednesday night game featuring the Leafs, but more like 500,000 when other Canadian teams were playing. And while hockey's home may be at Rogers, the sport still has a cottage at TSN, which has regional rights to 26 Leafs games, 54 Ottawa Senators contests and 60 Winnipeg Jets matches.
The success of Canadian teams, which is in short supply of late, is also a major factor in the bottom line, especially at playoff time. "All 30,000 employees [at Rogers] are cheering for all seven Canadian teams," Pelley said.
The CBC's Hockey Night viewership stayed mostly steady over the past seven years, usually at about two million for the early game and one million for the later offering. But Pelley thinks Rogers can find a 15-per-cent bump in Hockey Night ratings by airing as many as eight games on a given Saturday.
Prime time on Sunday is already hotly competitive. TSN has Sunday Night Football, a consistent draw that attracted more than one million viewers to a Super Bowl rematch between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks two weeks ago. It is also a big night for dramas, with CTV's Once Upon a Time and Resurrection, as well as Global's Madam Secretary and The Good Wife, all drawing between 1.1 million and 1.6 million viewers last Sunday.
And as the season wears on, the NHL will compete for attention with "a murderer's row" of live events, said Phil King, president of CTV, sports and entertainment programming. "Have fun going against Grey Cup, Super Bowl, the Emmys and Oscars and Golden Globes and Junos." (BCE Inc., which owns CTV and TSN as part of Bell Media, owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail).
Yet Rogers's Sunday night gambit makes more sense when one considers the NFL's strategy in the U.S., said Norm O'Reilly, chair of the department of sports administration at Ohio University. The NFL's moves to duplicate the ratings success of Monday Night Football on Sundays, and then Thursdays, were viewed with skepticism at one time, but have paid off handsomely.
"So the demand is there," O'Reilly said. "… If it's the dominant [sport in the country], it works."
Over the past seven years, the CBC is believed to have spent roughly $100-million a season on the rights to Hockey Night. In most cases, it more or less broke even from advertising revenue, or made perhaps $20-million more when Canadian teams thrived at playoff time.
But Rogers already has a comparable sum guaranteed. Quebecor Inc. agreed to pay more than $120-million annually for the next dozen years to make its media affiliate, TVA, the NHL's official French-language broadcaster.
And the rights deal gives Rogers an array of advantages. Unlike the CBC, it charges subscriber fees for several channels. The core Sportsnet channels earned $176.5-million in subscriber revenue last year, while Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 360 made $82.4-million. Those figures could rise, analysts say, as Rogers should be able to demand a higher fee per subscriber from TV distributors now that it has the precious hockey rights.
Rogers can also be a "one-stop shop" for advertisers looking to attach their brands to hockey, selling packages spanning multiple media platforms at higher prices, said Brian Cooper, CEO of sports marketing consultancy S&E Sponsorship Group. "Almost all of them are multiyear [contracts]," he said.
Pelley said Rogers is "exceeding" its advertising targets, which were "relatively conservative." But it has a vast trove of inventory to sell for years to come in an unpredictable ad market.
The pace of change in fans' viewing habits leaves the deal's long-term fate unclear. But Rogers has all digital rights in its pocket, and has only committed to four years partnering with the CBC, when the lease on the new studio expires.
"What things look like after four years, I don't know, and anybody who tells you that they do is blowing smoke. It could be insanely different," Moore said. "But I do know one thing and that's that sports continues to be the most valuable media asset you can possibly own."