Canada's game commodified. CBC suffers. by Matt Dusenbury
Apr 28, 2014
Ice is in our blood.
Through the years, hockey has helped define this nation. Like the countless lakes and rivers that carve the land just begging to be skated upon once frozen, the collective love for hockey connects Canadians.
As the country has evolved, hockey has endured, seeping into the very core of the culture. The game is treasured. The countless Stanley Cups. The '72 Summit Series. The gold medals in Vancouver and Sochi. What happens on the ice is a point of national pride, along with names like Gretzky and Messier and Henderson and Crosby.
So deeply engrained are hockey moments in Canadian lore that the game was for years emblazoned not just on sweaters and billboards, but on our money, along with a passage from Roch Carrier's iconic short story, The Hockey Sweater. "We lived in three places," the verse reads, "the school, the church and the skating rink -- but our real life was on the skating rink." Up here, the game is currency.
With such passion bubbling from B.C. to Newfoundland, hockey is big business in Canada that goes far beyond the sale of skates and sticks. Whoever controls the rights to the game, those coveted broadcasts beamed to screens in living rooms and pubs, invariably holds the keys to the kingdom.
For years, the group tasked with delivering the adored sport to citizens was their public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Since 1952, the network and its crown jewel, Hockey Night In Canada, have been the natural setting for Canadians to watch their game. With care in its craft, the CBC has evolved hockey over the last six decades into a spectacle that is today beloved by millions. The influx of audience eyeballs and advertising dollars the game draws then allows the network to shore up its diverse line of quintessential homegrown programming; Canada's game on Canada's network, supporting Canadian content -- a televised hat trick.
Now, the game, its home and its identity are under siege. With the recent multi-year, multi-billion dollar broadcast deal between the National Hockey League and media giant Rogers Communications Inc., the country's media landscape is on the precipice of a massive shift.
In one move, hockey has become both unified and fragmented, due to be poured into the telecom's diverse portfolio of products and drained away from its taxpayer-funded home, where it has lived for more than half a century. In a world of time-shifting, ad-skipping and on-demand viewing, live sports is one of the few avenues left to ensure a network's survival. And now, with hockey due to be sliced up and sold, the CBC is poised to suffer death by a thousand cuts.
The deal is unprecedented. On November 26, 2013, the NHL inked an exclusive contract with Canada's largest media group, Rogers Communications Inc. The 12-year agreement has Rogers paying the league $5.2 billion for the privilege of being the sole owner of television and broadcast rights for all NHL games shown in the country.
By contrast, a similar deal signed in 2011 between the NHL and American broadcaster NBC totalled just $2 billion. For the publicly funded CBC, the numbers were staggering, and too much to bear. Any attempt to counter the proposal would have placed it firmly in the red.
Outbid and overmatched, the broadcaster has now been forced to cede its most prized possession to private hands. Beginning with the 2014-2015 season, hockey in Canada belongs to Rogers.
The move marked the culmination of years of planning by the media group. From its humble radio beginnings in 1925, Rogers began expanding its reach in the 1960s into multiple ventures. Steadily it grew, acquiring smaller media and communications outfits.
It now touches every facet of Canadians' connected lives, including publishing, home phone lines, high-speed internet and wireless service. It is the largest publishing company in Canada, holding over 70 consumer and business publications and 50-plus radio stations. It is also the biggest wireless communications outfit and, with more than 2.3 million subscribers, it is the largest cable television provider.
Alongside chief competitor Bell Canada, Rogers is one-half of an effective duopoly on Canada's media marketplace. Aggressive diversification has allowed Rogers to become a powerful, almost inescapable gatekeeper for anyone looking to read, watch or talk about anything beyond their doorstep.
Technology alone, however, is not enough. Sensing the importance live sports could play in a new century of digitized content, Rogers purchased two major sports franchises in 2000.
The first was the New England Sea Wolves, a team in the Arena Football League that was promptly moved north of the border and rebranded the Toronto Phantoms. The experiment failed, folding after two seasons. But the second, the purchase of Canada's only Major League Baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays, proved far more successful.
A decade later, Rogers, in partnership with its rival Bell, acquired a majority stake in Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment from the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. Valued at over a billion dollars, the deal gave the two telecoms control over multiple sports assets, such as venues, media channels and all major teams in Ontario. The Toronto Raptors (NBA), Toronto FC (MLS), the Toronto Marlies (AHL), and the pride of the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs are all under MLSE, which now sits in the telecoms' firm grip. With dominion over Canadians' devices, services and major franchises, Rogers has quickly become the only game in town.
Perhaps most troubling, it is the game's departure from the CBC that may ultimately prove to be the killstroke in a long line of cuts to the public broadcaster.
There was a time, seemingly forever ago now, when the CBC was not only the country's harbinger of Canadiana but also the virtual meeting place for live sports. That lead has eroded over the years, slowly at first, but accelerating with every season.
In addition to reduced budgets at the behest of the federal government, the network began losing the programming that once helped deliver advertisers and pay its bills in the 1980s. What was once the home of the CFL, Blue Jays baseball and the Canadian Curling Association has been reduced.
Until now, Hockey Night In Canada remained. The ace in the hole. Those days are now numbered. Though the familiar theme and splashy intro will continue to grace televisions for at least the next four years, the program will be a shell of its former self. All editorial control and advertising revenue belongs to Rogers. That was part of the deal. Once a sports leader, the CBC has no choice but to follow the path that has been laid out before it, and hope it does not prove fateful.
For its part, Rogers has touted its landmark agreement as nothing short of a win for Canadian consumers from sea to sea to sea. At the announcement of the deal last fall, then-Rogers CEO & President Nadir Mohamed told those in attendance, "Canadians are passionate about hockey, and through this landmark partnership with the NHL we'll be able to bring hockey fans more games and more content on their platform of choice."
Taken at face value, this seems absolutely true. With ownership over the most radio stations, access to the largest cable television subscriber base and the facilitator of the most web connections of any internet service provider, Rogers has the means to break hockey out of its current broadcasting format, displacing it across a varied landscape of channels, devices and services in a way that does not exist today.
The company's purchase of top-quality wireless spectrum for $3.92 billion at a recent auction seems to support this plan. Mohamed's successor, Guy Laurence was quoted as saying of the move, "we secured the beachfront property we wanted." The spectrum acquisition covers 22 licenses spanning every province in the country and, tellingly, will be used to bolster the media company's wireless video efforts. Hockey everywhere.
This is the expected narrative by a telecom hellbent on convergence, one based on misdirection and cloaked in liberating language. Of course, experience tells us that this is not how large media organizations operate.
While the NHL/Rogers agreement comes with a promise of change, and with it choice, the reality is far more bleak. Future hockey games may be offered on more channels and screens, but all of those broadcasts, no matter what television its watched on, tablet its streamed to, or province it airs in, will filter through one company.
With distribution, devices, and editorial control, Rogers offers not choice but rather the illusion of it. And in that illusion, the real trick is revealed: that Rogers has wrested Canada's game from its roots, divided the territory, and successfully conquered the country's media landscape. All this not in the name of experience or patriotism, but survival through pure profit. This is the future of Canada's game -- commodification.
With its major stream of both revenue and prestige now firmly in the grip of another, the CBC's future has never looked darker. Even its president, Hubert Lacroix lamented that the worst was surely yet to come. In a leaked internal memo, he warned of, "dark clouds on the horizon," in large part due to the loss of the NHL contract.
Systematically squeezed, the victim of increased privatization and petty politics, the CBC is quickly running out of time, despite an overwhelming majority of Canadians seeing the public broadcaster as an essential service, the last bastion for truly Canadian content, fighting the good fight on their behalf. The corporation's near-future will not just be one of belt-tightening, but of triage, as it looks to stop the bleeding.
For decades, hockey has called the CBC home. And beyond the shared experiences and stories that may envelop it, the sport has been crucial not only to the Crown company's growth, but its very existence as it continues to fight an onslaught of hostile politics and foreign content creators. With the deal, Rogers aims to replace the CBC as the home of Canada's game, surely at a premium, and with a very different goal. Its mandate is not to serve citizens but shareholders, not to unify but divide.
With Rogers now firmly in control of the pipes and the product, the undisputed juggernaut of Canadian telecoms, the public broadcaster lies bleeding. Canadian media now teeters perilously on the brink of a dark new dawn.
Matt Dusenbury is an award-winning writer and digital book designer who has been featured in The Globe and Mail, The London Free Press and on CBC's Here and Now. In 2013, he worked with rabble.ca to design the digital version of its annual Best Of… book, which won a Canadian Online Publishing Award. Matt splits his time working as a social media consultant, writing for various publications, and hosting The Campfire Project, a podcast dedicated to the intersection of technology and storytelling, available for free on iTunes and the web.