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The Globe and Mail

Transcript: Canada’s biggest sports executives on state of the industry

Keith Pelley, president of Rogers’ media division

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

These comments were all made from the stage during the PrimeTime Sports and Entertainment conference at a panel discussion. These are edited transcripts – the conversation actually jumped from person to person and didn't happen as a series of long speeches.

Keith Pelley, Rogers Media president

Two things – one will never change and one will only grow over time and that's that sports is about passion. That will never change. But fundamentally what has changed in last 3-4 years and will continue to change how we operate as broadcasters and how we operate as team owners is social media.

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The consumer now has complete control, it used to be the media. Media could influence whether something was fashionable or not. We used to say at TSN that the World Juniors is a nothing tournament anywhere but Canada. It was completely made by the media. It was made by TSN because we told Canadians that it was important.

I remember there was a football game in 1999 between Saskatchewan and Hamilton that drew 55,000 viewers, only one other event lower than that. Next year we thought give up on the football league or do things a little bit differently – we came up with a concept called Friday Night Football, increased our promotion by 262 per cent that next year. Changed everyone in panel, said there will be no more chats about backroom stories and ownership stories we'll only focus on the field. Viewership went up incredibly where it's now averaging 900,000 fans.

But that's when media had control – consumers now have control. There are only four types of fans, and the second group is the most important. One is the diehard who is going to come whether you win or lose you know you've got them at the Argos and the Leafs. Will come regardless. Corporate Canada will come, the bandwagon jumpers will come if you win. But the No. 2 group which I think is the most important one is the people who just come because it is fashionable. And to Chris's point, to Tom, nothing was more fashionable the Toronto FC in the beginning. And social media can make something fashionable or not. As well as winning.

We learned very quickly this year with the Blue Jays. We changed the logo, it was an incredibly fashionable sport. Everyone was coming to the games, attendance was the biggest increase in Major League Baseball. Then September hit and we went through a skid and had injury problems and we went from here to here and social media had a lot to do about it.

I think the biggest change going forward in sport is the consumer now has control of what will be successful or not. You really need to target consumer more than ever.

Kids want heroes. I have a nine-year-old and he follows the Jays because he is told to. But if he wasn't, he follows because of Lawrie, Arencebia and Romero. Young, cool kids he thinks have personality and are fun. I think heroes can come in two ways – they can be fashionable for kids or be dominant players. And getting back to social media, they can become viral and they have to be so careful with what they say. So quickly someone's brand can change overnight. We certainly learned that this year with Escobar. There was a guy who was a pretty big fan favourite, that overnight did something stupid, it went viral and all of a sudden he went way down in terms of our research studies of most liked Blue Jays.

Things can spiral out of control very quickly – in the old days the Escobar thing wouldn't be an issue. A fan took the shot, put it on social media and it spiralled out of control.

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During the Escobar Escapade we probably initially didn't handle it the best that we possibly could. I think we rebounded very quickly and handled it properly. That's from the team side.

But from broadcast side nobody more critical than our Sportsnet broadcasters. Sometimes they go the other way because they are so worried about being cheerleaders that they went totally probably too far the other way.

The No. 1 rule we have – this was a discussion we had a long time ago with Maclean's magazine because Maclean's is part of the Rogers media portfolio had conversation with editor because it obviously can affect political ramifications there's areas we can criticizing some companies we do business with we sat down with Ken Whyte and said we're going to go church and state and maintain journalist integrity that's exactly what we've done.

I just personally don't think that if you own the team that you should be any different than if you don't own the team. I don't think you should be cheerleaders. Listened to game yesterday, it had home town broadcasters and I turned it off. Was way over the top – you have to maintain separate sides. Sometimes you go too far because you want to show you can say whatever you want and that's a challenge of a different sort.

I think pro sport and amateur sport you have to group together. Pro sport is going to continue to be challenged by not only the other individual sports but by amateur as well that are really starting to gain traction. You might think I'm crazy here but if you catapult ahead 10 years I honestly believe that obstacle courses are going to be a monumental sport. The team that continues to excel is the one that is most fashionable – that will be determined by people who are young and people like my son who is nine and already starting to get involved in social media.

Tom Anselmi, MLSE president

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Sports is at a really fascinating time in its development, it's a really young industry that's only really been around for 30 years or so and before that was just a toy for rich people. The economy is challenging, there is more competition for a fan's time. I am really fascinated by what's going on and how expectations are growing. Social media is changing how they interact with them team. It starts with good product and delivering on expectations and/or giving them hope.

In the last 10 years we've gone through an extraordinary amount of growth and a lot of it was investing in the building and Maple Leaf Square and doing things like adding restaurants to add to the experience from a bricks and mortar standpoint. Where we are going next as an organization is to step back a little bit and really focus on the core business – the teams, what they are doing, our relationship with the fans and what we're doing in the community.

The relationship with the fan is not just about some silly transaction – you sell a ticket and they show up and buy a hot dog coke and call it a day. Customers expectations are changing dramatically, they are more fickle and they expect there to be an experience. They want to know what you're thinking and what you're doing next, interact with you.

The passive two-way relationship we're used to with the fan of yesterday is long over. So that creates all kinds of opportunity – we've got all kinds of different products and different customers. We've got media partners, people season ticket holders, occasional buyers, we've got Madge who plays bingo up in Sudbury who is a huge Leaf fan but we never have any interaction with her but she's a huge customer.

Success tomorrow and adding value tomorrow is how you engage with them, and mobilize them and how do you permit them to have the kind of relationship with you that they want to have.

I talked about this $2-billion organization that has grown dramatically over the last several years and that we're hunkering down now and really focusing on core business, our teams and relationships with our fans. The last thing on the list is the community. Regardless, it's one of the most important things we do and important for a number of reasons.

No. 1 for students out there aspiring to be in industry it's a business and lots of hard work but a privilege to be in this industry. We have an obligation to do this – not that community is good business stuff, it's a privilege and we have to take the clout we have with our brands and go and do good that's just an obligation.

Brian Burke, Leafs general manager

On my teams, players get a speech at the start of the year that you will give back here in Toronto. You have the privilege of playing in one of great cities in world, God's gift of athletic ability that you have developed (to your credit) but you will use that gift to make a difference or you will play somewhere else. It is not negotiable. I really believe you can make a city like a team before the team is successful – I really believe you can get a city to embrace a team long before they are competitive if you do the right things.

Chris Rudge, Toronto Argonauts CEO

Thanks for the comments on (playoff) win. But I'm not silly enough to be seduced by one win and feel like this is going to turn around the franchise. It is exciting to be part of an organization that has worked hard for years and to experience success was good and I feel the fans are excited.

For those who don't know the Argos they are the oldest sport franchise in North America, 136 years old or so. We are part of CFL, we are going through some significant challenges in this market. My speciality has been fixing broken businesses and I think this about as big a mountain as I have ever had to climb. At one point in this city, it was either Argos or Leafs. This brand has eroded considerably over last 30-40 years and we're fighting hard to get back on the a-list in a town that likes a-list things.

This is a big city that sees itself as world class and likes things to be first class and it filters many things through the prism of its own arrogance in some ways. We've got to get back on the a-list and it's hard to do.

There are a lot of challenges we face – erosion of our brand, there are those who would say the venue is not right but I happen to like it and it's not because I'm sitting beside the landlord but because it's a place that when it's got a lot of people in it still has the energy and intimacy that lends excitement to the fan experience.

There's a lot of clutter in this town, a lot of first-class sports entertainment, tremendous social and cultural entertainment. You're fighting for entertainment dollars on a number of fronts. There's a changing culture in city – a highly mixed cultural environment probably unlike any other market in the world.

So the demographic of our fans has changed. Look at our fan base – we have too many people who are older white guys whose tickets have been in the family for many years. So we need to find ways to reach out to new fans and make them part of the family.

We face this perception that this is an NFL city, unlike most of the other cities in this country. In order to move that forward need to attack those things and reengage the city in exciting ways. Product on the field, same as any business. Doesn't matter what you do. Product isn't right, people aren't going to come out so we've spent a lot of time this year assessing how you're going to put out the right product and trying to put best players on the field. A big thing in our own organization is we need to stop making excuses for failure. If you allow your staff and people who work with you to make excuses, that can't be fine and it never will be fine.

Our venue is what it is, the clutter in the city is what it is. That's an opportunity, not a problem. People put shows on Broadway because that's where the theatre goers are. You put a shop in a mall because that's where the shoppers are. There are a lot of people who like first-class entertainment in this town and our challenge is to create it. There are five or six million people that live around here, we only need 30 to 40 every two weeks. If we can't do that, then we are doing something wrong.

We've had the opportunity to host the 100th Grey Cup this year. Wet alked to everyone who has hosted. Looked at what worked and what changed and try to embrace fact we do have 100. One thing as we try to rebuild this franchise is to make sure we're focusing on legacies that come out of this – we can't just look at this as a party that takes place at a certain point and time. If we can't create a legacy that has a stronger relationship between this community and Canada and the CFL brand and the Argo brand we will have missed a unique opportunity that will come around again.

We're experiencing some success right now, but I'm not going to live in a fool's paradise, our increase in season's tickets sales etc a lot has been because of access to Grey Cup tickets we need to convert those people into ongoing season tickets holders and attract new ones.

There is already a disproportionate amount of excitement around the fact that we made it into the playoffs and won a game. We have to keep investing in our product for the long term, lot of people said when we brought (quarterback Ricky Ray) here we brought someone here who could win a Grey Cup but it's not about winning one cup it's about building a franchise that can expect to win every year. You have to think dynastically – we need a five year plan.

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