Full stream ahead

Hockey Night in... Wherever: the NHL broadcasting landscape will be unrecognizable when Rogers' 'transformational' $5B deal expires in 2026


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It was hours before the Winnipeg Jets were to begin their first-round playoff series against the Minnesota Wild and Jets head coach Paul Maurice was already fielding questions from reporters.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/05/2018 (1667 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was hours before the Winnipeg Jets were to begin their first-round playoff series against the Minnesota Wild and Jets head coach Paul Maurice was already fielding questions from reporters.

The line of interrogation was exactly what you’d expect to hear on the eve of post-season hockey. Maurice addressed the Jets’ potent power play, provided insight into what a series against the Wild might do for the growing rivalry between the two Central Division teams and dismissed suggestions that his club’s lack of playoff experience might affect its overall performance.

But for some, what stood out most in the moment had nothing to do with what was being asked or answered. Instead, it was four bright green letters — hulu — repeated over and over, emblazoned alongside the NHL’s official logo on a league-sanctioned backdrop that stood just a few feet behind where Maurice was talking.

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press Carrie Unger and studio mates watch a stream of the Winnipeg Jets vs Nashville game together at their studio.

It wasn’t that Hulu (an American subscription video-on-demand service) looked out of place as the NHL’s main sponsor for the Stanley Cup playoffs, even if at first glance it seemed a tad unusual. In fact, media experts say it’s becoming more and more commonplace for technology-based companies to occupy these spaces, replacing the traditional quick-service restaurants, such as McDonald’s, as the leading sponsors for such high-profile sporting events.

Still, what exactly does it mean that Hulu, a company known more for streaming TV shows and movies than live sports, is now front-and-centre for all hockey fans to see?

“It’s about trying to get a piece of a very lucrative pie that comes with owning the streaming rights for live sports,” said Laurel Walzak, an assistant professor who specializes in sports media at the RTA School of Media at Ryerson University in Toronto.

“Whether it’s Hulu or another company, they are all trying to carve out a spot for themselves in this growing media landscape.”

Indeed, in much the same way the game of hockey itself can be considered to be in a constant state of evolution, the ways fans consume and connect with the sport have also shifted over time. Where families once huddled around a radio to hear the voice of iconic play-by-play man Foster Hewitt call a game on CBC, the modern fan is now able to stream the action wherever they go, simply by clicking a few times on their mobile device.

“The key word is access. Many years ago, the only way you could find out how your favourite player was doing was to read about it in the newspaper or to hang out outside the arena and catch a glimpse of that person in public,” said Ira Wagman, an associate professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication in Ottawa.

“People now watch on multiple screens and they’re engaged on multiple screens. I guess the way I would put it is, they’re engaged on multiple screens and on multiple streams.”

● ● ●

It was at the turn of the 20th century when newspapers began rapidly expanding their sports coverage, offering up more information on more leagues and, due to advancements in photography, better-quality pictures.

The first radio broadcast to feature a hockey game was still decades away from hitting the airwaves, so purchasing a ticket was the only option for fans who wanted to catch live action.

But for many who couldn’t afford the price of admission, other (often more extreme) efforts had to be made to follow a team or favourite player.

In the period prior to the First World War, crowds would often gather outside of newspaper offices in hopes of intercepting telegraphed reports of hockey scores. Meanwhile, in Toronto, W.A. Hewitt (Foster Hewitt’s father) developed a convenient way for fans to stay up to date on baseball’s World Series scores: he built his own outdoor scoreboard.

By the late 1920s, further advancements in technology would lead to the eventual birth of sports radio, with the first “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcast — known back then by its sponsor name, GM Hockey Broadcast — taking place in November 1931. The first season included all 30 Toronto Maple Leafs home games (24 regular season and playoffs) and three road games aired initially only on a handful of stations in Ontario; a Montreal-based outlet was added later in the season.

The total audience was estimated to be about 100,000 listeners. As more and more stations began to sprout across the country, aligned with a growing demand for more coverage in more places, by 1934 those numbers swelled to more than two million.

At first, the hockey broadcasts would begin at 9 p.m. Eastern time, which meant coverage almost always began midway through the game (a move to appease the owners, who felt puck drop-to-final buzzer broadcasts would negatively affect ticket sales). Despite the shortened airtime, surveys showed fans didn’t seem to care how much of the game they could listen to; most were impressed that they could listen at all.

In one particular report, 74 per cent of the total number of people surveyed that were using a radio in their home were listening to the GM Hockey Broadcast, while the other 26 per cent were listening to all the other available stations combined.

By 1934, the Saturday night hockey broadcasts would adopt a new sponsor, partnering with Imperial Oil to create the Imperial Esso Hockey Broadcast. That name would soon be formally replaced by its present title, Hockey Night in Canada, and it would remain that way when games were starting to be broadcast on television in the 1950s.

Despite a major spike in demand by fans to view hockey games on TV — which, by the mid-1960s started to arrive in colour for those lucky enough to be able to afford cutting-edge sets — many remained committed to radio, which now carried games from start to finish.

The radio and TV audio was often the same, delivering the legendary voice of Foster Hewitt on both platforms.

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press Sean Burke watches a live stream of game three in the Winnipeg Jets vs Nashville Predators playoff series on his home theatre system which is connected to his laptop.

Eventually, as more teams joined the NHL and more money was spent on broadcasting platforms, more games were being produced on more days. Sunday Night NHL Hockey emerged as must-see productions from the 1950s to 1970s, introducing now-legendary broadcasters such as Bob Cole.

● ● ●

Fast-forward to 2014.

When the NHL announced its new Canadian broadcast and multimedia-rights agreement with Rogers Communications (Sportsnet) — a commitment totalling 12 years at a cost of more than $5 billion to secure — league commissioner Gary Bettman called the deal “transformational.”

“Nobody has ever done a deal quite like this in terms of its structure, its length or its magnitude,” Bettman told NHL.com at the time.

The deal meant Rogers essentially created a Canadian hockey broadcasting monopoly on TV and online. They partnered with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada, obtaining the name of the holy Saturday night broadcast in exchange for fronting all the costs to produce the show (while also receiving all the revenue generated).

While there are still regional TV broadcasters — TSN Jets in Winnipeg, for example — no one other than Rogers has the national rights to every NHL game, including the Stanley Cup playoffs, on all of its platforms, in all languages. In addition, Rogers also has exclusive broadcast rights in Canada to air and stream specialty events, such as the annual all-star game and NHL draft.

Whether Rogers maintains some or all of those rights — or desires to — when the deal expires at the end of the 2025-26 season, only time will tell. But it certainly won’t be easy — or cheap.

When the agreement comes to an end, the NHL will have the opportunity to sell off more pieces of its product to more platforms at premium prices. Indeed, when the market does eventually open, there will be plenty of suitors — including companies such as YouTube, Facebook, Hulu or Amazon looking to grab a piece — any piece — of the pie.

“If you’re on your mobile, well, then somebody will offer you a chance to stream games on your phone. If you are on your tablet, somebody will do that. If you’re a subscriber to a service, they’ll allow you to watch the games as you go,” said Wagman.

“The short answer is now that we have more media, now the teams have to be in more places.”

One of the more common theories for the sudden peak in interest from tech companies such as Facebook and Amazon to buy up the streaming rights to different pro sports leagues is the rapid change in how consumers are choosing to consume these live events.

In a report released in March by Media Technology Monitor, the group acknowledged a decrease of five per cent in the number of people in Canada who had a TV subscription in 2017 versus the year before. The study included telephone surveys of 4,165 Canadians, all of which were conducted in co-operation with Forum Research Inc., with the number of subscribers dropping from 78 per cent of people in 2016 to 73 per cent in 2017.

While five per cent might not seem like a significant drop — TV cable companies continue to sell millions of subscriptions for a hefty profit — it’s still a number too big to ignore. More and more, specifically when it comes to younger generations, people are cancelling their traditional cable TV services in search of cheaper and more convenient options.

That decrease in traditional cable TV subscribers is particularly significant when you consider the 2017 Communications Monitoring Report — a study sponsored and distributed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, Canada’s regulatory agency for broadcasting and telecommunications. In the report, the CRTC accounted for an almost six per cent decrease in cable TV subscribers, although that drop was over the span of five years, from 2012 to 2017, rather than just one.

If this trend is to continue for live sports — events that, as opposed to sitcoms or dramas, are preferentially viewed in real time — it will only be a matter of time before TV and cable companies start to feel the pinch, if they haven’t already.

Add to that the fact there’s likely to be only an increase in relationships between sports leagues and technology companies in the future, which will only lead to more and improved over-the-top services — content delivered over the internet without the involvement of a multiple-system operator in control or distribution of the content, as is the case for cable TV — for viewers to choose from, and it’s difficult to predict the extent of the damage it could cause to the bottom line of big cable companies.

“There is definitely a threat to the broadcasters,” said Walzak. “I think you’re going to see more of the big, traditional broadcasters having to make strategic investments in the technology companies, because that is the direction and future trend of where viewing is going. It definitely is going to have an impact on subscription-based television, and it’s going to have an impact on the overall cord-cutting’ of traditional television.”

Chris Young / THE CANADIAN PRESS files Rogers CEO Nadir Mohamed (right) sits with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at a news conference in Toronto on Tuesday 26, 2013 as they announced a long term broadcast and multimedia agreement, which provides Rogers with all national rights. Also announced was a multi-year sub-licensing agreement with CBC and TVA sports for the NHL games.

Wagman doesn’t argue with the numbers but he also isn’t about to declare the death of traditional cable TV anytime soon.

“As long as there are still millions of people who still pay for cable, then sports will be on it,” he said. “I can see situations in which people are going to be asked to pay more to get access to those games, because they are very valuable properties.”

To see where the NHL might be headed once its deal with Rogers expires, look no further than what’s happening in the NFL, where TV and digital rights are divided up between multiple companies, ultimately maximizing profits.

The NFL brings in an estimated $7 billion per year from TV deals – approximately half its overall revenue — which include agreements with CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN. For digital, like TV, the rights are divided across different companies, but also by days of the week games are played and over different platforms.

In the recent two-year extension with Amazon Prime to live-stream Thursday-night games, ESPN reported the cost of the deal is 30 per cent higher in this year compared to last season — a jump from US$50 million to US$65 million — and a 650 per cent raise from the US$10 million that Twitter paid for the 2016 season.

As a result of more options for fans to consume games and bigger deals being signed to obtain rights to showcase them, what will eventually happen is the cost will rise for fans. In January, Amazon raised its monthly subscription rate from US$10.99 to US$12.99 south of the border and annual subscriptions are about to go from US$99 to US$119 later this month.

So far, Amazon has not announced an increase in the $79 annual Prime subscription cost in Canada.

In December, Verizon agreed to pay the NFL a reported US$2.25 billion over five years for streaming rights on mobile devices. The new deal — Verizon just finished a four-year term, worth a reported US$1 billion, for exclusive mobile rights in the U.S. — will now give the company access to all NFL games viewed on any mobile device, across all carriers. The package includes the live-streaming rights to the NFL’s Thursday, Sunday and Monday night games.

In addition to streaming rights on mobile, the agreement extends to all properties owned by Oath — Verizon’s parent company — including Yahoo, Yahoo Sports and AOL. With a reach of more than 200 million unique monthly users in the U.S., Verizon is also permitted to sell select in-game ad inventory on its platforms.

“It’s understanding the fan and how to monetize the viewing consumption experience is exactly what everyone is trying to figure out,” said Walzak.

“So if you can get more money from selling subscriptions or advertising and if some people want to watch on Hulu, some people want to watch on YouTube, some people want to watch on Amazon, some people want to watch on regular traditional television or social or mobile… if you take a look at it, it seems complex, but it’s how the fan wants to consume the content as they’re kind of dictating it.

“The thing I find so interesting is how you’re able to carve it out so everybody gets a little piece of the content pie.”



twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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