A plan to return Ron MacLean to the host's chair at Hockey Night in Canada, which might have seemed nearly impossible not long ago, sheds new light on the influence professional sports leagues enjoy with their broadcasting partners.
Though there are numerous details to be ironed out before a deal can be sealed, Rogers Media, which owns Sportsnet and holds the NHL's national broadcast rights in Canada, is looking to replace current host George Stroumboulopoulos after two years on the job, bringing back his predecessor, MacLean, a proven and familiar presence on the program.
Before the switch could proceed, a source says, Rogers sought and received the approval of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who signalled during the Stanley Cup final he wouldn't oppose the move.
Rogers struck a landmark 12-year, $5.2-billion deal with the NHL in late 2013, giving the communications giant sweeping hockey broadcast rights, but as Canadian teams have struggled on the ice, so have ratings on television.
Multiple sources agreed that Rogers would have run the move by Bettman, while one person with knowledge of the company's relationship with the NHL said it would have been an informal courtesy, rather than a contractual obligation. Even so, with a decade left on the contract, the power Bettman would wield in his response is considered very real, especially as a fractious relationship with MacLean was believed to have contributed to Rogers's decision to turn to the younger, hipper Stroumboulopoulos two seasons ago.
Asked on Monday whether Rogers would have to consult with Bettman or the NHL to get its agreement before changing hosts on Hockey Night in Canada – informally or contractually – Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL properties at Rogers, replied in an e-mail, "We are not commenting on the speculation at all at this time."
Neither Bettman nor NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly responded to requests for comment.
Three sources said the approach to Bettman would likely have been made by either Moore or Rick Brace, president of Rogers Media. Brace is known to have a good rapport with Bettman.
A broadcast source who knows all of the principals and has dealt with Bettman over television contracts said, in practice, it is common for TV networks to float their choices for major positions, like Hockey Night host, with the league – its partner in a multi-billion-dollar pact.
Industry insiders agree Rogers must feel a compelling need to shake up the program, likely in response to audience testing. Both Bettman and Rogers CEO Guy Laurence were widely believed to be supporters of Stroumboulopoulos and his work on Hockey Night – at least in the early stages. The rumours of a wider shakeup, possibly including job cuts as soon as next week, have left many Rogers and Sportsnet employees feeling uneasy.
With billions of dollars changing hands each year for the rights to air live sports that are – in the eyes of many – the surest bet to attract viewers in a shifting TV industry, broadcast executives and league officials must balance the need for independent coverage with an interest in working together to maximize each side's return on their investment.
"A big part of the broadcast is the talent, and ultimately, the leagues may not have significant input, let alone veto power. But I do believe there are discussions," said Tom Richardson, president of Convergence Sports & Media and a professor of sports management at Columbia University, who has worked for the NHL and NFL. "There are very few surprises that are sprung on each other in that world. … So is it conceivable that [Rogers] conferred with the NHL? I think that happens sometimes."
MacLean's on-air clashes with Bettman during periods of NHL labour unrest are well documented. But he is hardly the only high-profile sports broadcaster to run afoul of league executives. Commentator Bill Simmons was suspended from ESPN, which has an eight-year, $15.2-billion (U.S.) rights deal for Monday Night Football with the National Football League, for calling league commissioner Roger Goodell a "liar" in 2014. Simmons ultimately left the network.
Conversations with members of Rogers staff, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, reveal there is concern that MacLean could once again wield the behind-the-scenes power over Hockey Night as many believed he did when the CBC produced the program. MacLean, who declined comment, has protested in the past that this was perception more than reality.
A return to MacLean could be seen as a safe bet for Rogers, and a concession to longstanding, diehard viewers who complained about the new format led by Stroumboulopoulos. Yet a key lingering question, should the switch be confirmed, is whether MacLean would be any less strident this time around, and how he might interact with Bettman on air.
Stroumboulopoulos has not responded to requests for comment.
Ever since Rogers sealed its 12-year deal, company executives have talked repeatedly about their strong partnership with the NHL.
In a May 2015 interview, Laurence said his staff and the league's are in touch "daily" to share data and iron out logistical issues, but added, "to be clear, that's not because they sit in some kind of policing role."
In a separate interview that same month, Bettman said: "We don't try to exercise editorial control."