"The Rights to Watch" is a five-part series investigating the the future of Hockey Night in Canada and public access to the National Game. It was published in summer 2013 - prior to Rogers being awarded the broadcasting rights - by Ryerson University, completing my Masters of Journalism. My supervisors on this Major Research Project was Joyce Smith, then director of the School’s Master of Journalism program.
Part Three: Sport as a Commodity
Wiping the sweat from his brow, quarterback Len Dawson looks at his teammates. Their white uniforms are stained with a mix of blood and dirt. It’s the 1967 AFC-NFL World Championship game (better known today as Super Bowl I) and although his team is only down by four points they look tired. Photos taken by Life Magazine at halftime show most of the guys sprawled out on the floor, their backs resting against the locker-room wall.
Dawson, however, prefers to take a seat. The soda pop in his left hand keeps him cool, while the cigarette in his right helps him to relax. As he inhales, his eyes close, allowing him to concentrate on the music being played by the half-time band. For the next few minutes, Dawson attempts to gather his thoughts before heading back out onto the field for the second half.
Unfortunately for Dawson, the Green Bay Packers prove to be too strong, defeating his Kansas City Chiefs 35-10. Looking back, what’s notable about the first Super Bowl was not the game, but the $12 ticket price, 30,000 empty seats and the fact that a 30-second commercial cost $35,000 instead of $4 million.
There is, however, another equally revealing, but often neglected fact. As the second half got under way, the referee unexpectedly stopped the match. When Dawson and the other players asked why, the officials said the game needed to be restarted because the cameras had missed the second half kick-off.
The NFL’s preference for its broadcasters over the authenticity of the game helps to explain a predominantly American perception of sport as a commodity. It’s a view that contrasts the British position that sees sports as a part of cultural heritage.
For Canadians, these opposing views are worth exploring because the country stands at a crossroads. Until now, professional hockey has been made available to viewers through the national broadcaster. But the CBC’s broadcasting rights to Hockey Night in Canada are about to expire, and universal access to the national game is no longer assured without some form of government intervention.
"North America has sold out. The sport is lost; it’s all controlled, it’s manipulated and it’s becoming business.”
This series is exploring the question of who should pay for sports by investigating how other countries have dealt with the challenge of maintaining universal access to their national games. In the previous article, we explored how the British get involved in the market to ensure universal access to events of national significance.
In this article, attention is given to the Americans, who, contrary to expectation, have also used legislation to keep their most popular sports available on over-the-air networks like CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox. The difference, however, is that the American decision to act, or not act, has, in part, been the result of a different social outlook that researchers Tom Hoehn and David Lancefield, in a study published in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy, say is premised on four key facts.
The first is that, unlike Canada with hockey or Britain with soccer, Americans identify with several sports. While football may be the most popular game, major advertising dollars are also spent on basketball, baseball and hockey. This diversity raises the barrier to subscription or pay TV, because if one sport becomes too expensive to watch, people can easily switch to another. This isn’t the case in Canada because broadcasters know that viewers want hockey above other sports.
Over-the-air networks also can compete with pay TV providers in the United States because of the size of the American market. And while Europe has a similar-sized population, it’s fragmented, like Canada, by language barriers.
The third reason is that Americans have chosen not to regulate advertising times to the same extent as others. The British, for example, allow only seven minutes of commercials per hour, while the Americans allow over 18. Sports can work on over-the-air networks in the U.S. because the amount of commercial time it allows negates the need for pay TV.
"...commercials. It’s the stupidest thing, and they laugh at us for playing cricket.”
Finally, Americans have not implemented legislation to stop pay TV from siphoning the broadcasting rights to their most popular sports because their professional leagues have been willing to work with advertisers to make themselves TV-friendly.
“TV controls the sport,” says Dale Peters, a Toronto sports fan. “That was something I learned in North America.” He came to Canada in the ’80s from South Africa. “When I first heard that they actually stop games to have commercials, I laughed. North America has sold out. The sport is lost; it’s all controlled, it’s manipulated and it’s becoming business.”
The NFL, for example, hasn’t just restarted its games, as it did in the first Super Bowl, to please advertisers; it has worked with them to maximize commercial opportunities. The average football game takes more than three hours to watch, but there are only 12 minutes of actual playing time. Interspersed between each huddle, change of possession and review of play are commercials. And all of this is then followed by even more ads between each quarter.
The game has been altered to sell because, for the U.S., sport is a commodity. Fortunately for Americans, access isn’t a worry because over-the-air broadcasts, at least for now, remain the most lucrative means to generate profit. As it stands, the NFL makes more than 70 per cent of its revenue from TV deals. This represents over $6 billion a year.
This is where the NHL wants to be. Beginning in 1967, with the league’s first expansion, the goal has always been to secure a major American network deal. And like the NFL, the NHL has been willing to change its rules to achieve this. “When I went to watch a game,” says Peters, “I saw a guy with orange gloves waving,” signalling a mandatory TV break. “I was like why are they standing around? Oh, commercials. It’s the stupidest thing, and they laugh at us for playing cricket.”
If you’re still not convinced that sport is a business, visit the Hockey Hall of Fame. Besides the old jerseys and statues of former players, you’ll see large signs reminding you to watch hockey on TSN. There is even a 3D video that TSN has created in partnership with the NHL. TSN is also the main sponsor of the Hall of Fame’s “Hockey Broadcast History Timeline.”
While there are a few references to Hockey Night in Canada, it’s startling to see little mention of the CBC, the network that helped popularize the game. It’s a reminder that everything is for sale, even the past. It might even be a sign of things to come—if you accept that sport is a commodity, available only to those who can afford it.
This is what happened in New Zealand, which we’ll discuss in the next article, because it may indicate what will happen in Canada should access to the national game migrate to pay TV.
© Ignacio Estefanell 2013