Adjusting to hockey in the Rogers era

This coming weekend marks the fourth Saturday in which the traditional night of hockey on TV in Canada is being brought to you by Rogers Communications Inc.

It’s been almost a year since Rogers made the blockbuster announcement (subscribers only) that it was taking over exclusive rights to national broadcasts of NHL games for 12 years at a price of $5.2 billion. But the manifestation of this arrangement is still rather new, as it came into effect for the hockey season that started this fall.

As not to completely throw away tradition, Rogers agreed to let CBC continue to show Hockey Night in Canada. Several Rogers properties also became outlets for HNIC, including the various Sportsnet channels and City. As well, TVA Sports is showing French-language hockey broadcasts on Saturday nights.

I’m an Ottawa Senators fan and, as a result, have not watched CBC for any of the hockey broadcasts so far this season. Games involving the Toronto Maple Leafs have taken the early evening time-slot on CBC every Saturday this season and I suspect, for sound business reasons, this will continue. For the most part it doesn’t affect me. Every Saturday so far I’ve been able to get the Senators game on Sportsnet or City.

From the perspective of a hockey fan, there are benefits to this new arrangement with Rogers. There’s more choice in what teams to watch. There have been times in the past where I could not watch the Senators on a Saturday because CBC insisted on a national broadcast of the Leafs, and with CBC holding national broadcast rights to everything except RDS’ showing of Montreal Canadiens games, you weren’t going to find hockey on another channel that night.

More often, Leafs fans in the Ottawa area or any location other than the Big Smoke might have been subjected to watching the local team play on the local CBC feed, missing out on the privilege of seeing the Leafs lose another game and having to hear about it later instead. That’s unlikely to happen anymore (not the Leafs losing, just being prevented from seeing it).

Now, as a result of Rogers flooding the airwaves, cable, IPTV and satellite connections with hockey, there are up to seven different games broadcast by Rogers and its partners every Saturday, not including what one might find on Rogers’ NHL GameCentre Live online streaming service. There is no reason why a Canadian can’t find a channel showing their favourite team on a Saturday night, unless the team isn’t actually playing that night.

Well, there is one other reason — you might not get the channel the game is on. Unless you’re on Rogers cable, the main Sportsnet feeds are not likely to be part of your basic service.

I was visiting someone on a recent Saturday and assumed I could catch a bit of the Senators game while there. No dice. They had Bell satellite service and did not opt for Sportsnet, where the Sens were that evening. They had the Leafs on CBC, which is available on every basic package and free over the air, but that’s not the game I was looking for.

It didn’t feel right. I don’t think it’s in the Charter or anything, but I had come to understand that being able to watch a Senators game on TV on a Saturday was a right. It seems like it had been years since I’d been caught in situation where even the CBC Ottawa affiliate was ignoring the Senators in favour of the Leafs or the Habs.

If you’re a Winnipeg Jets fan, you might have the same issue this Saturday. Their game against the New York Rangers is on Sportsnet, which isn’t carried on basic by either Shaw or MTS, the two main TV-service providers in Manitoba.

Yet I’d say things are generally going smoothly with Rogers being in charge of the country’s hockey content. I’m subscribed to all the channels I need to be in order to get full coverage. On Saturdays, I can surf around during commercials to see how other games are going, rather than wait for updates, which come to think of it aren’t very common anymore outside of intermissions.

Still, this slight change in what hockey games one can assume are available where on a Saturday seems like the start of shift toward having to pay more if you want to watch hockey.

Consider that CBC is only guaranteed to be part of Rogers’ plans for hockey for the next four years. Then there’s the likelihood of the CRTC implementing a pick-and-pay TV system, which could result in higher market rates for sports channels when subscribed to on a standalone basis.

One must also think about the ongoing growth of TV services on online platforms. Rogers seems aware of this trend, with its GameCentre streaming service and GamePlus app standing out as examples of why it spent $5.2 billion on hockey rights, not to mention $3.3 billion on wireless spectrum.

Rogers must have assumed hockey fans were going to pay it back.

Derek Abma is editor of The Wire Report. He can be reached at dabma@thewirereport.ca.

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