When Rogers Communications reached into its deep pockets and found $5.2 billion for the national NHL package two years ago, it dreamed of monster television ratings. There was talk of a 20 per cent increase.
Not only did the big jump in audiences fail to materialize, but TV numbers actually took a bit of a dive in Year One.
Rogers had been praying for a bounceback in Year Two, no doubt hoping that fans had finally gotten accustomed to George Stroumboulopoulos and had finally figured out where to find all those games Rogers was airing.
But so far, this season has been a continuing challenge for Rogers to start making gains on its substantial investment. There have been promising signs, mainly on Wednesday night games and a couple of regional broadcasts. But the flagship Hockey Night in Canada package continues to have trouble finding big audiences while the Sunday night experiment has declined badly.
Here's the good news for Rogers:
- Wednesday night games are averaging an impressive 849,000, a 21 per cent increase over last season. That puts Sportsnet 12 per cent above what TSN averaged in its final year.
- The late Hockey Night In Canada games are averaging 815,000, up 1 per cent over last season, though still down (13 per cent) from the pre-Rogers days.
- Regional ratings for the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers are up 4 and 19 per cent respectively.
Unfortunately for Rogers, those gains are offset by plenty of bad news:
- The early Hockey Night In Canada offering continues to disappoint, averaging a solid 1.86 million but still down 7 per cent from last year and 9 per cent since Rogers took over.
- Sunday night's Hometown Hockey was moved from City to Sportsnet this season in hopes of boosting ratings. The opposite has occurred, with the 417,000 average down 30 per cent from its inaugural year.
- Regional ratings are down for the Maple Leafs (9 per cent), Canucks (27 per cent) and Flames (5 per cent.)
Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and Rogers NHL operations, says he still has faith that Rogers will eventually reach its goals as long as certain teams start to perform better, namely the Leafs and Canucks.
``The real driver of all of this is team performance and interest in the regions," he said. ``The Leafs and Canucks are concerns for us, especially because they are our two biggest markets.
``The Leafs have had a bit of an upswing in the last month. People are starting to see there's some discipline ... and that there's a plan that seems to be playing out. In Vancouver, which is a very fickle market at the best of times, and that team's performance has been concerning."
There's little doubt about that and, unfortunately for Rogers, little a network can do about it. The Leafs have driven ratings on Saturday nights for more than half a century, but audiences started to abandon them midway through last season when it became obvious all hope was lost. They still haven't come back.
A smaller audience in the first Saturday night game all but assures a smaller one in the second, especially when the Canucks are struggling. But how does Rogers account for what's happening on Sunday night?
Moore says a lot of that has to do with moving the game from City to Sportsnet.
``It got hurt early by the Blue Jays and we have found that when you move from one channel to another it takes people a long time to adjust, longer than we would have thought," he said. ``But I'm still very bullish on Sunday night. It still outrates (NFL) Sunday Night Football almost every week. It's an important night for us."
There are some encouraging signs. November's Sunday night games averaged 445,000, an increase of 41 per cent over October.
While ad rates were dropped this year after Rogers failed to hit its audience targets last season, Moore insists that the corporation's plan is on track. One reason is that while TV numbers are disappointing, the NHL has been a hit on the digital side.
Subscriptions for Rogers NHL GameCentre Live, the app that delivers games to your phone or tablet, are up 122 per cent. Total users are up 25 per cent -- an important number because Rogers has exclusive rights to the product and is using it as a subscription driver. Moore expects those numbers to rise further when GameCentre relaunches in January under the direction of MLBAM.
``This deal, especially as we get further into it, will be less and less judged by the linear television ratings and more and more judged by what else we can do with the property," Moore said.
While it's hard to muster much sympathy for a giant corporation that makes billions of dollars, there's no denying Rogers has had a few bad breaks with its new toy. First, the Leafs and Canucks go into the dumper. Then, this year's great hope, Connor McDavid, gets knocked out before his career barely started with the Edmonton Oilers.
And while the NHL, with help from the Toronto Blue Jays, have driven Sportsnet to the top of the speciatly channel business ahead of bitter rival TSN, you have to think there are a few executives above Moore who are wondering if this really was a good investment.
Regardless, they've got another 10 years to get an answer.