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Usual Suspects

Rogers wrestles Cox from TSN Add to ...

Toronto Star columnist Damien Cox has signed with a TV network. But it won't be with TSN. And TSN is not happy after it apparently thought it had a verbal deal with Cox.

After our story Wednesday that Cox was negotiating with TSN, a series of negotiations ensued. It ended Thursday with Cox signing with Rogers Sportsnet. The deal will allow Cox to appear as a co-host of Prime Time Sports on Sportsnet Radio The FAN 590 and as a hockey analyst on Hockey Central and the network's other shows.

It also means Cox will continue writing at the Star, where he's covered the Maple Leafs for over 20 seasons. (TSN wanted him to write for their website TSN.ca) He will have to end his participation on TSN's The Reporters and as an analyst for the network. At press time there was no indication from TSN who would replace Cox.

"We are thrilled he's extending his presence with Sportsnet, " Rogers Broadcasting president Scott Moore said in a release. "He's one of the best in the business, and we're pleased to have him."

Pleased does not describe TSN's reaction. According to sources, Cox verbally agreed to a deal this week, toured the potential studio facilities for TSN's planned radio venture and contacted TSN staffers to express his enthusiasm for joining the country's top TV sports network. The next thing TSN heard was Thursday when Cox's lawyer called to say he was going to sign with Sportsnet.

Cox denies the allegation. "None of that is even remotely true," he told Uusal Suspects in an e-mail. "But I won't get into mudslinging. I loved working at TSN for more than 15 years. They're great people. I'm excited now to get a chance to work for Rogers."

Cox's arrival likely means a change for Prime Time co-host John Shannon. Shannon told Usual Suspects Thursday that he's been assured by Rogers executives that he will have "a significant role" and does not expect to leave the show or the company. Globe & Mail columnist Stephen Brunt, co-host on PTS, says he's pleased to have Cox join the show and is working toward a new contract himself with Rogers.

The major question that has to be asked about Cox (or any Toronto-identified reporter) is how does he play nationally? Fairly or not, branded Toronto reporters tend to be an overrated commodity in Toronto broadcast circles.

Giving Cox a national platform helps, but many outside southern Ontario still may regard him as a local guy who's covered the worst team in the NHL for much of a decade. Then again, with the Toronto market so dominant, national programmers might not particularly care what happens west of Guelph and east of Kingston.

Loyalty Oath

What can be said for sure is that the gloves are off between TSN and Rogers. Usual Suspects has learned that TSN has told Pierre McGuire, Darren Dreger and Dave Naylor that they are not to work for any Rogers-owned sports radio properties.

So as of this week, the trio is off Sportsnet Radio’s Fan 960 in Calgary. Sources tell Usual Suspects that when Rogers made the name change, adding Sportsnet to the title, TSN decided to pull its employees off the shows. This all appears to be in anticipation of the launch of a TSN competitor to the Fan’s radio station in Toronto.

It’s less clear how the ban might affect Don Taylor, who works for Rogers Sportsnet Pacific but also appears as co-host on CHUM’s Team 1040 afternoon show in Vancouver. (One TSN personality, Jack Armstrong, did appear on Jeff Blair’s show on the Fan 590 on Thursday.) TSN employees will be allowed to continue on Team stations in Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa, which are owned by TSN’s sister company CHUM.

As reported last week by Usual Suspects, TSN employees are still welcome on The Fan, according to Moore. “We have no issues with TSN personalities on The Fan,’ Moore wrote in an e-mail. “I can’t speak for them, but I would expect that they value the promotion of appearing on the station.”

Posturing, positioning

Expect the muscle flexing between the sides to get more agitated. As we noted at the beginning of this year, the rivalry is not about TV shares or radio ratings. The revenues of a conventional sports radio will not support TSN starting a new radio station or Rogers launching a new sports channel in response. But in the struggle between Rogers and TSN’s new owner Bell, they make perfect financial sense.

The TSN/ Rogers rivalry – undertaken the day Rogers Media supremo Keith Pelley left TSN and CTV for Rogers – is about positioning for cable TV, cellphones, market share in the magazine business and supremacy in the specialty TV area. The budgets for those areas make radio revenues look like chump change. But if branding a radio station with either TSN or Sportsnet can help spread the share for iPhones or cable/satellite delivery, then money will be spent, talent will be poached from print, radio or both, and media writers will rub their calloused hands in glee over the prospects for stories.

Labour pain

Hockey fans will recognize the plaintive tone from NFL broadcasters and other media these days. As the current season winds down, the football media are talking more and more about the insanity of shutting down a sport for labour reasons when it just signed a $20-billion (U.S.) deal with ESPN. They wonder how the league can throw away the record TV ratings they’re now enjoying (more than 40 million U.S. viewers for the New York Jets and New England Patriots game last Sunday, and a record rating for a divisional round) to keep the Jacksonville Jaguars solvent.

ESPN’s Tim Hasselbeck illustrated football fans’ fanaticism, saying that if government were addressing the sport today they’d regulate it as a controlled substance.

Yes, yes and yes. But as hockey fans can tell you, stop making sense. The issues that are driving the coming attempt to clear-cut the National Football League Players Association are irrational and resistant to logic. As happened in the NHL, the big boys on both sides of the aisle want to have it their way, and no amount of talk about the consumer will affect these obscenely rich parties from a little bare-knuckled brawling. Teams did not retain losing coaches because they saw a full season on the horizon.

With its TV billions guaranteed in the event of a lockout, the NFL has little downside besides Bob Costas doing a scathing editorial and some fans waxing indignant. There will be games lost to this head butting, then the world will go on, with an 18-game schedule, a rookie salary cap and a rueful nod of the head from fans who more clearly see their true place in the sports food chain.

Whose Side Are You On?

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin evidently expects the media to take a loyalty oath. Prior to Pittsburgh’s win over the Baltimore Ravens last weekend, ESPN’s Bob Holtzman got a little specific about Tomlin’s game plan with listeners. “Two Steelers have told me, if they catch the Ravens in the right defence, they have a trick play ready to go today that they’ve never run before,” Holtzman reported. The ESPN talking head elaborated a bit without giving any names.

Sunday, the Steelers ran zero gadget plays. Wednesday, Holtzman asked Tomlin about how he might defend against his next opponent, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan. Hissed Tomlin, “It depends on whether or not you give him my plays, you know.” Where’s Bill Belichick when you need him?

Bruce Dowbiggin’s column about sports media appears Mondays and Fridays in The Globe and Mail and on our website, and exclusively Wednesdays on globesports.com.

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