"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 Two: Sport as a Cultural Right


In the 1930s, there was concern in England that rising ticket prices for sports were causing a social divide, excluding the poor from the nation’s stadiums unless they happened to work behind a concession stand. The British were right to be worried. In 1931 it cost 17 cents to attend the FA Cup final, which was less than two hours pay for the average citizen; today it costs $184 or a full day’s salary.


Despite the increased cost, there was more concern back then about ticket prices because the only way to see a match was to attend. There was no TV or Internet and even though radio was an alternative, sports clubs were afraid that live commentaries would affect ticket sales. As a result, the Football Association began demanding compensation for the broadcast rights to the FA Cup final.


The British Broadcasting Corporation refused, maintaining in The Radio Times that its broadcasts allowed “the blind, the invalid, and the poor [to] renew and keep alive their interest in a national sport.” It said that soccer, a people’s game, was being “captured by professionals whose whole interest apparently is commercial, who care not one jot for those not immediately concerned in contributing to their gate money, and who are unable to see that broadcast commentaries actually increase and spread interest.”

 

“Sport has the power to change the world.... It breaks down racial barriers and laughs in the face of discrimination.”


Today, in Canada, the social divide could get bigger if the CBC loses the rights to Hockey Night in Canada. If this happens, Canadians may need to subscribe to specialty channels, like TSN or Sportsnet One, to watch Saturday night and playoff hockey.


What’s noteworthy about the BBC’s story is that the FA bowed to public pressure, allowing the final to be broadcast without charge. It’s hard to imagine this happening in Canada; after all, it’s estimated that CBC pays $100 million a year to the NHL as part of its Hockey Night in Canada broadcast.


The British, however, have continued to fight this divide, because for them, sport – despite its flaws, namely xenophobia, jingoism and gender bias – is a matter of national interest. Daniel Geey, solicitor and sports lawyer with Field Fisher Waterhouse, in England, says sporting events are “cultural identifiers” that serve as “a focal point, that help bring people together and feel a part of the nation.” To deny access would be to deprive citizens of their cultural rights.


While many countries share these beliefs, South Africa is perhaps the best known. It has pursued major athletic competitions, such as 1995 Rugby World Cup and 2010 FIFA World Cup, to help foster national reconciliation because, as Nelson Mandela said in a speech at the Laureus Lifetime Achievement Awards, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does … Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It [breaks] down racial barriers [and] laughs in the face of discrimination.”

 

"It’s conceivable that Bell and Rogers could merge and “end up owning the entire sports landscape.”


However, it’s the British, through the BBC, who pioneered the belief that sports coverage is a necessary component of nation building. To keep sports on the public broadcaster, the British government has intervened in the market, because, when it comes to certain sporting events, it values public access and national pride above fiscal gains.


When the BBC could no longer afford to compete for expensive sports rights, the government passed legislation in 1990 to protect events of “national significance” from migrating exclusively to pay TV. Some of these events have included: The FIFA World Cup (all games), UEFA Champions League (all games), The Olympic Games, FA Cup finals, Wimbledon Tennis finals, Rugby World Cup final, Cricket World Cup and Open Golf Championships.


Several other European countries, as well as Australia, have also implemented their own “events lists” and passed legislation regulating the cross ownership between newspaper and television companies. The British, in particular, have taken steps to ensure competition and non-biased sports coverage by limiting media companies to a 10 per cent stake in the nation’s professional soccer franchises.


This is contrary to the situation in Canada, where both Bell and Rogers own majority shares in some of the largest sports properties, like the Blue Jays, Raptors, Toronto FC and the Maple Leafs. In addition, these two conglomerates control some of the nation’s most popular magazines, radio networks and TV channels. They may also be about to outbid CBC for the exclusive rights to broadcast NHL hockey.


Jeffrey Orridge, executive director of CBC Sports and the one leading the negotiations with the NHL, says, “There is a disproportionate amount of scrutiny and criticism being placed on the CBC.” After all, he says, it’s conceivable that Bell and Rogers could merge and “end up owning the entire sports landscape.” If this happens, “I don’t think we as a society are better off with a monopoly.”


Orridge also wonders whether people realize that cable companies can raise their fees every month. “I don’t know about you, but my monthly cable costs are already significant.”

 

“The Americans put God on their money, we put a bunch of kids playing hockey on our five dollar bill.


If media commentators are right, and the CBC can no longer afford to compete for premium sports rights like the NHL, the question becomes what does hockey mean to Canadians? And, secondly, does it matter whether everyone can access specialty channels to watch the national game?


According to Roy MacGregor, columnist for The Globe and Mail, hockey does matter to Canadians. “The Americans put God on their money, we put a bunch of kids playing hockey on our five dollar bill. We have a country where I’ve always argued people know the words to The Hockey Song more than they know the words to the national anthem.”


To this day, Canada’s largest television audience belongs to the 10.5-million people who watched the 2002 Olympic men’s gold medal game between Canada and the United States. Even during the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, more than five million viewers tuned in to game seven of the first-round series between the Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins.


That’s why hockey, according to Orridge, is “the tissue that connects regions and local communities. It’s the building block of Canadian DNA.” What makes “it part of the national conversation” is that “whether it’s discussions of what Don Cherry said or friends discussing a play on Hockey Night in Canada or their favourite team,” hockey helps form a common language.

"...it’s not hockey we’re talking about, it’s the NHL, two different things.”


Is this enough, however, to say that hockey is a public good, requiring government intervention to ensure equal access to specific events like the Stanley Cup final? Not to Bruce Dowbiggin, sports columnist for The Globe and Mail. “For the Canadian or the American government to intervene, and tell a league they have to supply something for free, sounds like a real Labour Party, half-wit notion from Britain.”


Furthermore, it’s worth remembering that “the NHL is a New York-based entertainment company…” says Stephen Brunt, back-page columnist for Sportsnet Magazine “… that is predominantly American, so it’s not hockey we’re talking about, it’s the NHL, two different things.” After all, what’s Canadian about Chicago vs. Boston in the Stanley Cup finals?


The answer, says Orridge, are the players, since the majority of them are Canadian. “It’s not just about Canadian teams, but about Canadians playing hockey in the NHL … the highest level of the game.”


However, for Brunt this claim overplays the cultural card. "These are massive commercial concerns … I don’t know what the cultural significance of the NHL is. I think it’s like saying what’s the cultural place of Cineplex or Famous Players.”


Brunt’s view represents the other side of this argument, one that sees sports as an entertainment commodity. The next part of this series will explore this position, by taking a closer look at the NFL and how it works with broadcasters to make football TV-friendly for advertisers. It will also explore how the Americans have encouraged this commoditization through the legislation of their sports broadcasting industries.

 
© Ignacio Estefanell 2013

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