Cable sports channel TSN is seriously considering starting its own sports radio network to challenge the FAN 590 in Toronto and the rest of the country, The Globe and Mail has learned.
The challenge would ratchet up the corporate rivalry between Rogers Communications Inc. and CTV Inc. for the sports audience in Canada. The FAN is owned by Rogers, and TSN by CTV Inc.
"Will there be a branded TSN radio coming up soon? I'd say we're looking at it for sure," TSN president Stewart Johnston said. "It could be a matter of a branded content as opposed to a branded station, or it could be making better use of our guys. … But it's a possibility."
Johnston's comment is the first public indication from TSN that it may take on Toronto's FAN 590, which for competition in the sports-talk radio market has had only AM640's Maple Leafs coverage and Bill Watters' drive-time program.
The framework is in place for a national network. TSN's sister company, CHUM, has the 1050 radio band in Toronto, which relays the CP24 signal. As well, CHUM has sports-radio outlets already in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and two in Vancouver. In those markets, the changeover could be as simple as a new name.
Industry sources say that any TSN radio operation could begin shortly after Bell Canada's acquisition of CTV Inc. is finalized this spring. The acquisition is subject to regulatory approval.
TSN has been including clauses about radio work in some contracts with its existing talent, leading to the possibility of its stars logging some radio time, as happens with ESPN radio in the United States. TSN has a number of high-profile personalities, including James Duthie, Bob McKenzie, Michael Landsberg and Jennifer Hedger, whom it might use on radio. Whether it would do so at the expense of the TV product is doubtful.
As well, inquiries have been made to non-TSN talent about their availability. Speculation has Calgary-based Mike Richards, who turned down the FAN 590's morning drive show last September, being considered by both sides in the burgeoning rivalry. Richards' morning show on The FAN 960 in Calgary recently became the first sports-radio program to reach No. 1 in the 25-54 demographic, a significant achievement for an AM show against more heavily promoted FM content.
Johnston says that if TSN takes the plunge, it probably would concentrate on the country's largest local market in Toronto and avoid ESPN's national template in the U.S.
"I wonder if [ESPN's]philosophy of a national radio signal will work in Canada," said Johnston, who assumed the TSN presidency last summer. "We had an attempt at that [with the TEAM concept] and it didn't go very well. We've found that in Canada, local is key."
The greatest hurdle for a potential TSN station in Toronto will be the afternoon drive-time supremacy of Bob McCown on The FAN 590. McCown, whose contract expires in December, has dominated the ratings for two decades.
"If TSN decides to go forward, it'll be the third time someone has taken a run at me or the station," McCown said Monday. "So far they're 0-for-2. First, The TEAM, which is dead after losing millions for CHUM. And second, AM640, which is scaling back on sports after failing to beat us."
Asked if he'd spoken to TSN, McCown said, "No comment."
A TSN challenge will clarify loyalties in the sports TV/radio business. TSN talent such as Pierre McGuire and Darren Dreger appear on Rogers' radio shows in some markets. That would likely cease.
The radio battle would come shortly after Keith Pelley, formerly a CTV executive, took over as president of Rogers Media, a move that was poorly received by his former employers. Rogers and CTV are aligned in a consortium for coverage of the London 2012 Summer Olympics, but the developing battle for No. 1 in the sports cable business suggests that the two sides may find different allies when the next NHL and CFL television rights are decided.
A Rogers/CBC alliance, for instance, could make a powerful combination against TSN when the NHL rights are negotiated in time for the 2014-15 season. Likewise, if TSN partners with CBC, home of Hockey Night in Canada, it could leave Rogers out in the cold on the lucrative NHL pact.