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Rogers and BCE to play spin-the-dial with Maple Leafs radio broadcasts

Exteriors of Air Canada Centre and the entrance to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment which is located there.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The new owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs may agree on the firing of general manager Brian Burke, but Rogers Communications Inc. and BCE Inc. are set to test the friendliness of their partnership as they divvy up the NHL team's radio broadcasts ahead of a shortened season.

The companies have already agreed to share the games 50/50, which means they'll have about 25 each to put on their respective radio stations.

A lockout-shortened season has ratcheted up the importance of each regular-season game, however, and the companies are locked in a fierce battle for listeners in the Greater Toronto Area – which could make the process of selecting who (Rogers-owned Sportsnet 590 The Fan or BCE-owned TSN Radio 1050) gets what difficult when the NHL schedule is released some time this week.

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The two corporate giants compete for cellphone subscribers and television viewers but must put those multibillion-dollar businesses aside when handling Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. matters. (Rogers and BCE paid $1.3-billion for a 75-per-cent share in the parent company of the Maple Leafs, NBA's Toronto Raptors and Major League Soccer's Toronto FC.)

How they handle the radio negotiations will help set the tone for upcoming discussions on television rights that will eventually arise when the current broadcast deals expire in 2015.

"There was an attempt at doing this before the season started, but everyone got so frustrated they decided to not do it until they had to," said Scott Moore, broadcast president at Rogers Media. "We are competitive tooth and nail. … We want to beat them every day and they want to beat us, but we have to have a schedule ready."

The negotiations are all the trickier because Rogers is already committed to airing Raptors games (although Rogers has exclusive radio rights, the two companies plan to split the NBA team's broadcasts in coming seasons) and, because the hockey season will overlap with a month of Toronto Blue Jays baseball games, Rogers has even fewer radio openings to fill with Maple Leafs games and the advertising dollars associated with them.

While Sportsnet holds a higher radio market share in Toronto, TSN is anxious to use the hockey broadcasts to raise its profile and boost its ratings.

"Obviously, NHL hockey and the Maple Leafs are king in the Toronto sports market," said Robert Gray, program director at TSN Radio. "Having half of all Leafs games gives us an immediate leg up, driving audiences and overall awareness for the station."

Meanwhile, the broadcasters face a host of other challenges as they try to figure out how to get hockey onto TV screens for a shortened season.

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The NHL plans to stretch its playoff run through to the end of June, posing challenges for networks who usually shift their programming away from hockey as the weather warms. This is particularly challenging for Rogers, which is fielding what should be its most competitive Blue Jays squad in years (Rogers purchased the team in 2000) and will have trouble fitting both NHL and baseball games into its collection of sports channels.

The company has five regional Sportsnet channels it uses to show NHL games in local markets, and each has a smaller "feeder" station associated with it that can be used to broadcast overflow programming and meet its contractual obligations to show a set number of games. Rogers may also be able to move some games to its recently acquired The Score channel, if the deal is approved as expected by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. But it is limited in what it can show on The Score: roughly one live broadcast a day, and it must be interrupted every 15 minutes for sports updates.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which has exclusive NHL rights on Saturday nights with Hockey Night in Canada, is also considering adding a number of games to its schedule in order to make up for those it lost in the lockout and meet its contractual obligations.

In a normal year, the public broadcaster orders enough comedy and drama series to take it up to the start of the playoffs in the second week of April. That means it could find itself forced to run repeats on the six nights a week it had planned to show playoff hockey – so it may opt to run additional regular-season games rather than reruns.

TSN, which has exclusive TV rights for Wednesday night, said it will have to wait until the 2013 schedule is released before commenting.

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