"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 One: Crossroads


With a beer and collection of salty snacks, Hedrik Wachelka, a retired civil servant, watches Hockey Night in Canada. He looks forward to the one night a week when he’s able to sit on his couch and “enjoy the game, knowing full well that others are doing the same.” It’s “a guilty pleasure” except for the commercial breaks, which he avoids by flipping through a sports magazine, “something light” to keep his mind occupied until the game resumes.


As a boy, Wachelka began supporting the Montreal Canadiens after his parents bought him one of their jerseys for Christmas. The son of immigrants, he credits the hours spent in parking lots and rinks near Ottawa’s Preston Street “hitting the puck” as his introduction to Canadian society. However, after next season, Wachelka, who since retiring has cut down to basic cable, may no longer be able to watch the game he loves. That’s assuming media commentators are correct in predicting that CBC is about to lose the rights to professional hockey.


While CBC won’t confirm, it’s estimated that the public broadcaster pays $100 million per year for the right to air HNIC, which it refers to internally as the “Shrine” because of its iconic stature. But now, as negotiations for a new contract begin, CBC is going to have to pay even more, even though its federal funding has been cut by $115 million. Blood is in the water, and both Rogers and Bell, Canada’s largest media conglomerates, have announced their intentions to bid on the contract.

 

What’s at stake is not just the future of the CBC, but access to the national game.


“If CTV-TSN [Bell] want to own this property, they can write a cheque that CBC can’t match, and as we saw in the 2010 Olympics, if they want to do that, they will,” says Bruce Dowbiggin, sports columnist for The Globe and Mail. Another advantage that Bell and Rogers have over CBC is their co-ownership of the Toronto Maple Leafs. This allows them to overbid on the contract, since a portion of the money they would spend would get returned to them as revenue.


As Canadians wait to learn who wins these negotiations, it’s worth considering the broader implications, because what’s at stake is not just the future of the CBC, but access to the national game.


If Bell or Rogers win the contract, they have two options. The first is to broadcast hockey on conventional networks, such as CTV or City. These channels are available over-the-air, which means they are accessible to all viewers. But, unlike the public broadcaster, their signals do not cover the entire country, so some Canadians would not be able to watch the games. However, according to Dowbiggin, “This isn’t the barrier it used to be; satellite and online technologies are making all of this moot.”


Still, these technologies, regardless of their form, will only be delivered for a price. Les Skinner is vice-president of Hockey North, the branch of Hockey Canada responsible for Nunavut and The Northwest Territories. He lives in Inuvik and says that while there is talk of broadband, it’s years away. He pays $100 a month for basic cable services via satellite, and doesn’t receive “a whole lot of channels.”

 

"Blood is in the water and if Bell or Rogers want to own this property, they can write a cheque that CBC can’t match."


For Skinner, what makes HNIC a northern tradition is that “come December, we are pretty much in 24 hours of darkness, so there is a lot of time spent indoors and people look forward to watching hockey.” If CBC does lose the rights, he says, “I can see the costs going up to the point where we can’t afford to watch.” If this happens, Skinner doesn’t believe the kids he coaches will stop playing, but says, “I can see it having an effect on their ambition and wanting to be NHL players.”


The second option is for Bell or Rogers to broadcast hockey on specialty channels such as TSN or Sportsnet One. The difference between this option and the first is that it would require all Canadians, not just those in the North, to pay for expensive cable or satellite services.


According to the CRTC’s latest monitoring report, about 80 per cent of Canadians now pay for TSN and less than 50 per cent for Sportsnet One. This means that should CBC lose the rights to hockey, anywhere from 2 to 6 million Canadian families will no longer be able to watch, unless they subscribe to pay TV.


In a way, CBC is about to become a victim of its own success. The reason HNIC is valuable is because it’s a “revenue generator,” says Dowbiggin that consistently draws between 2 and 3 million viewers. Sport draws these kinds of numbers in part because it’s unscripted—any team, on any given day, can win. This unpredictability is the reason why many people want to watch the games live.


This demand also explains why sports broadcasting rights around the world are migrating from conventional to pay TV. Private broadcasters are willing to pay big money for these rights because they drive subscription rates. Bell and Rogers have already proven this model in Canada with TSN and Sportsnet One. These channels are the exclusive home to Wednesday night NHL games, The World Junior Hockey Championships, Major League Baseball and The Canadian Football League.

 

"If you believe that hockey is a cultural entity then Canadians shouldn’t be denied what I would call the basic rights of being able to watch a hockey game. It should be a constitutional right."


Regardless of what option is taken should Rogers or Bell win the contract, Canadians would have to pay more to watch hockey. For some, this would mean doubling their TV bills, from $38, the cost of Rogers basic cable, to more than $70 a month to get a VIP cable package.


However, Roy MacGregor, columnist for The Globe and Mail, doesn’t believe Canadians are willing to pay “If they [pay TV providers] want to charge more on speciality channels they can go to hell.”


“If you believe that hockey is a cultural entity that Canadians need to know about each other, then, just because people happen to live in northern outreaches, they shouldn’t be denied what I would call the basic rights of being able to watch a hockey game. It should be a constitutional right.”


That’s why, despite Rogers and Bell’s monetary advantage, Carly Agro, a host and reporter with CBC Sports, doesn’t believe CBC will lose the Shrine “I honestly don’t think the NHL would let that happen. They wouldn’t be that stupid. Look at the millions of Canadians who watch a Hockey Night in Canada broadcast. If they lost it, they would lose a part of themselves.”


For Agro, the popularity of HNIC is about more than Saturday night hockey—it’s about loyalty to a brand. “When you talk about Hockey Night in Canada it’s a bubble, it doesn’t just include the game, because Canadians don’t just want the game. They want Ron [MacLean], they want Don [Cherry], they want Scott Oake and they want the way that Bob Cole calls the game.”


In the coming months, as the media increasingly starts speculating on the status of these negotiations, Canadians must decide what hockey means to them. It’s the kind of question other countries have been asking regarding their own national sports.

 

Look at the millions of Canadians who watch a Hockey Night in Canada broadcast. If CBC lost it, they would lose a part of themselves.”


The British and Australians, for example, have already taken legal measures to ensure that certain sporting events remain on over-the-air networks since they provide moments of national significance. They’ve taken these steps because they believe that access to their national sports is a cultural right.


While some Canadians may feel this way about hockey, it’s hard to imagine that money won’t be the overriding factor in the current negotiations, considering that one result of the 2012/2013 NHL lockout was a 50-50 revenue-sharing split between the owners and the players. Clearly, both parties have a vested interest in selling the rights to the highest bidder.


This argument takes the position that sport is a commodity. It’s a view shared by countries such as the United States and New Zealand because, for them, sport isn’t a matter of national significance, but a commercialized product.


By investigating these opposing views of sport, the question that this five-part series explores is whether the national game is a cultural right for all Canadians to enjoy or if it’s an entertainment commodity to be made available only to those who can afford it.

 
© Ignacio Estefanell 2013

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