The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has one month to lock down the broadcast rights to Hockey Night in Canada for another decade. But with the asking price expected to double to $200-million a season, the country's public broadcaster could be hard pressed to keep its 60-year lock on Saturday night hockey.
The CBC has exclusive negotiation rights with the NHL through August, but sources at BCE Inc. subsidiary Bell Media Inc. (which owns CTV and TSN) say the broadcast giant is anxious to step in if a deal with the CBC can't be reached quickly.
But the league must step lightly – both broadcasters have reasons to let the NHL pass them by. "This isn't a slam dunk for the NHL by any means," one broadcast executive said. "It's not as straightforward as someone might think."
And there's a new variable this time around that adds another level of intrigue – the league is interested in creating an exclusive Canadian broadcast on Sunday nights that could go to the broadcaster who is either outbid or passes on the Saturday night rights.
"Sunday night could make for a really nice property," said Gord Hendren of Charlton Strategic Research, which tracks sports trends. "They've no doubt seen what the other leagues have done and see the potential for something that is exclusive."
The broadcasters and league wouldn't comment because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
The CBC has been the exclusive broadcaster of Saturday night hockey in Canada since 1953 (its most recent deal expires at the end of the coming season), and drew an average of two million viewers for each early broadcast last season, and one million for the later game.
The stakes are high for the public broadcaster, which relies on the Saturday broadcast to promote the rest of its schedule. Without hockey, the CBC would lose as much as $175-million from its $450-million of annual advertising revenue.
It also uses profits generated through the playoffs to finance other programming, which is especially important as its budget continues to shrink at the hands of the austerity-minded federal government.
"[Hockey] is an important piece in the funding and assumptions that we have because of what it represents in advertising revenue," chief executive officer Hubert Lacroix told employees last year. "I don't think this is going to be easy – I think we have a good relationship and some of the choices we're making are to ensure we have the means necessary to put a really credible offer on the table."
But finding potentially another $100-million a year is a challenge at time when its annual budget is in decline – the federal government said last year the CBC would need to cut $115-million within three years as part of broader spending cuts. It has already made drastic changes such as cutting hundreds of employees from its staff, closing services and introducing advertising on its CBC Radio 2 network.
And although hockey is key to the CBC's image, it has already learned what it's like to live without the sport. Its French-language service lost hockey in 2002, and Lacroix said the service has done "extremely well" since ceding the broadcast rights to Bell Media-owned RDS.
For Bell Media, laying claim to Saturday night hockey would mean a substantial ratings boost on TSN and the chance to further establish its dominance in sports broadcasting in this country. It would likely take some heat for moving the marquee hockey game of the week to a subscription channel (CBC is free over the air, as is CTV), but it has proved with the Grey Cup on subscription-driven TSN that it can deliver big numbers without the larger reach of over-the-air broadcasting.
TSN already has a good relationship with the league, with a deal that gives it exclusive rights to Wednesday night games featuring a Canadian team, as well as more than 70 other games through the year and games from the first three rounds of the playoffs.
But the broadcaster would run into problems come playoff time if the new deal gave it better access to prime matchups, when it would need to shift games to its conventional broadcast network (CTV) and knock ratings juggernauts such as The Amazing Race off the air to make room for games that would likely draw fewer viewers.
"It starts to become about how they are able to manoeuvre and shift their programming to accommodate the most possible viewers," said Vijay Setlur, an adjunct professor of sports marketing at York University in Toronto.
Rogers Communications Inc., which owns the Sportsnet cable channels, isn't a likely player for NHL Saturday rights. It could, however, be interested in a package the NHL is developing that would grant a broadcaster exclusive rights to a Canadian game on Sunday nights.
The league is anxious to replicate the success of the NFL and Major League Baseball, both of which have built lucrative television franchises by creating exclusive Sunday night broadcasts.
The broadcast would be a natural fit for Rogers' newly acquired Sportsnet 360 (formerly The Score), which is allowed to show a limited amount of live programming each week. An exclusive broadcast could drive viewers to the channel, and give Rogers a chance to cross-promote its other Sportsnet channels (which broadcast more than 250 NHL games a year).