Ron MacLean (left) and Don Cherry (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)
Largely because there are no Canadian teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring, ratings for the NHL in Canada have dropped by more than 50 percent in these playoffs. The good news is they've probably leveled off.
The man responsible for executing the 12-year, $5.2 billion Canadian television deal between broadcasting giant Rogers and the NHL says the deal is still a very good one for Rogers, despite the fact that an absence of Canadian teams has first-round ratings down more than 60 percent.
Scott Moore, the president of Sportsnet and NHL properties for Rogers, isn’t even all that surprised at the low numbers. And he tends to look at it from a perspective of the glass being half full. Historically, as Canadian teams drop out of the playoffs, so does the viewership. Well, that had already happened before the playoffs began, so logic would dictate that audiences will likely hold steady for the rest of the playoffs. And depending upon the matchups in the second round, they might even improve. The Canadian broadcaster has already been forced to swallow the poison pill and, in fact, had been chewing on it for the last quarter of the season when it was clear that no Canadian teams would be in the post-season.
Here at thn.com, we reported this week that for the first five days of the playoffs – April 13 through 17 – the 20 playoff games televised on Sportsnet and CBC drew an average audience of just 513,000, which is 61 percent lower than the 1.306 million pairs of Canadian eyeballs that were watching in the same period last season, when there were five Canadian teams in the playoffs.
“I don’t know that it’s a big surprise to us,” Moore said. “Actually, one of the upsides for us is that without Canadian matchups on the CBC, our U.S. matchups on Sportsnet are actually stronger. They’re up 20 percent over last year and that means our overall share on Sportsnet is higher.”
And that, Moore said, is what still makes the NHL rights a good spend for the network. One of the reasons Rogers bid for the NHL and was willing to pay so much for it was to establish itself as the go-to sports network in Canada. And Moore said that, combined with Rogers having the Toronto Blue Jays and Raptors, its market share is almost double that of TSN’s in April.
“The NHL deal is still delivering for us,” Moore said. “But having said that, the lack of Canadian teams has been a challenge. I think as people are watching these series and seeing the quality of hockey, I would expect the ratings in the second and third rounds won’t dip and I think if anything, they’ll go up a little bit.”
Moore acknowledges that when they did the deal with the NHL, they would have never thought to provide a buffer for a year when there would be no Canadian teams in the playoffs. And why would they? What are the chances of that happening? This year marked the first time in 46 years that no teams north of the 49th parallel were in the playoffs. Considering that for about half of that time since there were only two Canadian NHL teams and that number has grown to seven, it would be almost inconceivable to forecast a year with no teams from Canada in the post-season.
It has been a blow to be sure. Not a killing blow, but a punch to the gut, nonetheless. It’s particularly damaging that it came in the second year of the 12-year deal.
“I would have preferred, if we were going to have a year without Canadian teams, to have it in Year 6 or 7 after we had had a couple of deep runs with Canadian teams,” Moore said. “But if this were a three-year deal, I’d be sweating. Because it’s a 12-year deal, and I expect there will be a bunch of deep Canadian runs over the course of the deal, I’m not sweating as much.”
Moore doesn’t put much stock in the backlash he’s seen over the Rogers broadcasts. Anecdotally, it seems there is a block of fans out there who simply don’t like the Rogers broadcasts or some of its on-air talent. Moore said he takes Twitter with a grain of salt as he should, since it’s often a dumping ground for those who want to complain. Whether it’s the skinny suits worn by host George Stroumboulopoulos or the commentary of Nick Kypreos, or a pining for the return of Ron MacLean, fans are not shy about sharing their feelings on social media. There is a critical mass of people out there who say they are not watching because of the broadcaster, not because there are no Canadian teams.
But it’s hard to quantify that and as Moore points out, those with complaints are more likely to air them than those who are happy with the product.
“When the Canadian teams are not playing well, the sky is a little cloudier, the sun isn’t shining as bright and they have a different attitude,” Moore said. “If you go to the Air Canada Centre and the team isn’t playing well, the beer doesn’t taste as good. If Canadian teams are playing well, I think the attitude toward the broadcast would be different.”