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Hockey's not the only sport leaving CBC by Eric MacKenzie

Apr 17, 2014

Source: Pique

For most nostalgic hockey fans in this country, the end of Hockey Night in Canada as we know it pulls at the heartstrings.

Long before every game in the NHL was broadcast, before cable and Internet packages made it possible to watch each one, and before Don Cherry went from being a mere jingoist to his current status as relic, Saturday night on CBC was the time and place to watch hockey.

The NHL's new 12-year, multi-billion dollar television rights deal with Rogers made it obvious that the public broadcaster no longer has the means to compete with private interests in the high-stakes game of professional sports.

It's true that HNIC isn't what it once was. Aside from the excellent Elliotte Friedman, CBC's panel of analysts has been watered down over the years, play-by-play legend Bob Cole isn't as alert in the broadcast booth as he used to be, and it has been unable to shake accusations of a pro-Toronto Maple Leafs bias, despite offering simultaneous regional games.

But the young hockey fan in me always has fond feelings for hockey on CBC, and there were certainly some things the program was still doing well — providing live streams of every game online (many available with Punjabi commentary), and the always-interesting After Hours segment hosted by Scott Oake and Kelly Hrudey chief among them.

Although we're guaranteed to keep watching puck on the network for at least four more years as per the new Rogers deal, the loss of those broadcasting rights was guaranteed to change the face of the CBC.

Last week, we learned just how impactful that loss will be, and it's looking like the Mother Corp being outbid for the NHL means more sports than just hockey will be disappearing from its programming.

The network announced $130 million in cuts on April 10 that will take place over the next two years, which means more than 650 positions are to be eliminated. The CBC's sports department looks like it will be hit hardest, and the expectation is that it will dramatically scale back amateur sport coverage going forward.

Federal budget cuts have hurt the broadcaster over the past few years, but the lack of ad revenue CBC has enjoyed through Hockey Night is a major factor in the reductions. With Rogers set to retain all revenue in the new NHL deal, that's at least $100 million no longer coming CBC's way annually. That's about one-third of CBC's entire revenue income.

In addition to no longer competing for pro sports broadcasting rights, CBC president Hubert Lacroix said the network "will also cover fewer events and fewer sports. In addition, our involvement in amateur sports will be reduced. We will only broadcast events that allow us to break even."

In other words, World Cup alpine skiing, freestyle events and regular coverage of other Olympic disciplines look like they could be heading out CBC's front door along with the NHL.

CBC holds the broadcast rights for the 2016 Olympics, as well as this year's FIFA World Cup. Lacroix said major events of "national importance" like the Olympics would remain on CBC's radar, but implied CBC can't effectively cover them alone. The sub-licensing deals it struck with Bell and Rogers for the 2014 Winter Games, putting events from Sochi on TSN and Sportsnet properties, are likely scenarios for the next summer Games in Rio and any other Olympic ventures for the CBC in the future.

It's obviously a concern for many of us here in Whistler if CBC is forced to drop its coverage of Olympic winter sports. Although Sportsnet has aired some World Cup alpine skiing and sliding sports on tape delays, it's reasonable to assume that Rogers will be focused on its new hockey deal and not looking to invest further resources into those disciplines. And if CBC finds those sports to be money-losers, then I can't see Bell rushing in to save them with airtime on TSN.

All of this points to a larger trend that is of national concern. These are just the latest sport properties to fall off of CBC's broadcast plate in the past decade — the network was once the longtime home of the CFL and Grey Cup, and at times aired Toronto Blue Jays and Raptors games to a national audience. No longer.

That's a problem because sport forms an important part of the national identity. There are few things that galvanize Canadians, coast to coast to coast, as well as cheering on athletes that represent our country. We see that during every Olympics, and at Grey Cup parties that are an annual tradition for many people who don't identify as football fans, but tune in because it's the Canadian thing to do.

The CBC's mandate specifically states that it should "contribute to shared national consciousness and identity." With more sports set to disappear, a Canadian identity that is already so hard to define will be receiving fewer contributions from our public broadcaster.

© Pique