Early returns on Rogers $5.2 billion NHL gamble show mixed results

Sportsnet and its new Hockey Central studio is drawing mixed results
Sportsnet and its new Hockey Central studio is drawing mixed results

When you've paid $5.2 billion for something, you expect it to be perfect in every way.

So there have to be a few frowny faces in the corridors of the Rogers Media offices these days as its monstrous gamble on Canada's national NHL package is producing mixed results. Ratings for the flagship Hockey Night In Canada property have gotten off to a slow start, advertisers are wondering if they're getting what they paid for and critical response has been less than enthusiastic.

But these are early days -- Rogers has another 11-and-a-half years left on its deal -- and there certainly are promising signs. The most encouraging is what the addition of hockey has done for two Rogers properties: Sportsnet and City TV.

``In the big picture, the property is doing exactly what we wanted it to do," says Moore. ``We wanted the NHL to help propel Sportsnet to being the No. 1 sports media brand in Canada. I'm thrilled with the results on that front."

It's not hard to see why. Since its inception in 1998, Sportsnet has played a distant second to sports king TSN. But that is changing and it's not really a big surprise.

Helped by the NHL, Sportsnet's October ratings were the highest in the channel's history and on the year the Rogers channel is rapidly closing the gap on TSN in audience share.

But as impressive as that is, the trend is even more encouraging.

Prior to this fall, Sportsnet had beaten TSN in monthly ratings only twice in 15 years. This year, it has won five months and though the CFL playoffs and Grey Cup helped TSN stay on top in November, December surely will go to Sportsnet. And just as surely, so will the first five months of 2015 as hockey revs up.

An example of how hockey has boosted Sportsnet's fortunes is the Wednesday night game, which is drawing 26 per cent more viewers than TSN's old midweek offering -- thanks mainly to a better schedule.

``Where we used to be a distant second place, we're basically tied after just two months of hockey," Moore says.

Thanks to hockey, Sportsnet is also scoring online. It ranked eighth in sports website traffic in October on ComScore, the first time it has ever cracked the Top 10.

Like all conventional channels, City is facing some big challenges and was a drag on the Rogers bottom line -- until it became part of the hockey world. While the Sunday night hockey package isn't doing as well as hoped, it is bringing 67 per cent more viewers to City than its previous Sunday night attractions did.

``The NHL has made a huge difference with City," says Moore. ``That's putting City on the map."
But it hasn't all been roses.

While ratings for the early Hockey Night In Canada games are up 9 per cent over last year, Game 2 is down a whopping 17 per cent even though the western teams are off to strong starts (except, as always,  Edmonton). That's a bit alarming and Moore admits there are concerns.

The problem, he believes, is that by spreading the early games around four different channels and showing the second only on CBC, viewers don't naturally tune in to the later offering. That may be a consequence of Rogers' new approach flooding the market with too many games.

``We need to do a better job of promoting Game 2 and making sure people know where to go," he says. ``That's our biggest area of concern."

Another is the Sunday night game, which is not drawing as many viewers as Rogers expected. It has averaged 664,000 viewers, boosted by an Ottawa-Toronto game that drew more than 1 millon. Rogers was anticipating that being the norm.

But Moore says it's all a matter of a new product finding its niche.

``I'm cautiously optimistic," he says. ``I love what our features units are doing and the hometown angle. But it's taking a little while to establish Sunday, which shouldn't surprise anybody because it's a whole new night.
``We're a little below where we'd said we'd be, but I believe that's going to grow over the next year.
Remember, it took Sunday Night Football a couple of years to establish itself."

As for the shows themselves, Moore says criticism of new HNIC host George Stroumboulopoulos was expected, especially when a newcomer replaces an institution like Ron MacLean. ``I'm sure Ron is glad there was no social media around when he replaced Dave Hodge," says Moore. ``I think George is doing a tremendous job, but he's admitted it's a very difficult job. He's going to be great at it. I've seen improvement each week and I expect that to continue."

Don't be surprised to see Strombo doing more interviews, something at which he excels.

Moore also says that its army of commentators needs to settle in as Rogers tries to find which pairings work best. Not all of them do, that's for sure.

None of this means that anybody is thinking about standlng on a window ledge at Rogers headquarters. The playoffs is where profits are made and in that regard things look pretty good so far. If the season were to end today, there would be plenty of Canadian content and that spells big ratings.

Whether Rogers can make its investment pay off is still a matter for debate. If things don't go according to plan, it may sell off some games to TSN or even cut back on the number of Saturday night offerings to reduce costs.

But all of that's in the future. For the moment, Rogers will have to ride out a break-in period on its flashy new convertible and hope that the road gets a little smoother.