Miffed Ron MacLean shines a light on sports TV's true workings

·Chris Zelkovich
Ron MacLean, left, won't be in his usual chair this season.
Ron MacLean, left, won't be in his usual chair this season.

If Ron MacLean accomplished anything in suggesting that NHL president Gary Bettman might have played a role in his demotion under the new Rogers hockey regime, it was to shine a light on how business is done in the television world.

In an article published in the Globe and Mail on the weekend, MacLean spoke in glowing terms about his new role as a cross-Canada rover hosting Rogers new Sunday night hockey package. But at the same time, he made it clear that he saw the new job as a step down from being the man at the centre of Hockey Night In Canada.

He even suggested that his contentious annual showdowns with Bettman might have been the reason he'll be hosting from small-town arenas in the hinterland instead of in the humble $4.5 million HNIC studio.

“Maybe that hurt me but I would gladly fall on my sword for that principle,” MacLean told the Globe's David Shoalts. “But I don’t know that it had anything to do with [a reduced role]. It could have.”

Not surprisingly, Rogers denied that Bettman had anything to do with MacLean's job change. While we'll probably never know if that's true, it's highly unlikely that shuffling MacLean to the sidelines was engineered by Bettman.

First off, if Bettman was so upset about facing MacLean, why did he return year after year? It was good theatre and Bettman knew it. Secondly, if Bettman really wanted MacLean gone, Ron wouldn't have just been shunted off to Sunday nights. He'd be back doing the weather in Red Deer. 

All MacLean has reallly lost is the host's chair on Saturday nights and some of the influence he had on HNIC, an influence that grew year by year.

The fact is that MacLean was never going to be the new face of Rogers hockey, regardless of how much Bettman either likes or dislikes him. With a $5.2 billion investment, Rogers had to put its own stamp on things and while new host George Stroumboulopoulos is a CBC guy, he is a new face for hockey.

Rogers is hoping that a younger, hipper face (the man wears an earring, after all) will tap a whole new vein of viewer gold.

Rogers desperately needs to attract a new (younger) audience to justify its investment. MacLean served CBC well, but he wasn't going to bring any new viewers to the show. 

But in addition to blowing off some steam, MacLean may have done sports fans a huge favour in exposing just how independent most sports broadcasts are. That's independent, as in not very. 

MacLean told Shoalts that the NHL brass “had a huge say in how the show (HNIC) was run,” when it was operated by the CBC.

“That pressure was always there to acquiesce, to toe the company line and in some cases that might have been the league line,” MacLean said. “But I felt strongly about the importance of a healthy NHL Players’ Association. That was a difficult thing for both the CBC and the league to accept, always was. Nobody [at the CBC] was ever happy when I was treating a partner [with skepticism], a partner that thought they were more important than the NHLPA.”

The fact is that broadcasters and leagues are partners. The networks make no bones about that.

They're in business together and knocking the product is never good for business. Oh, there's always some designated hit man (Don Cherry, Gregg Zaun) to tilt at the league brass. That way the networks can tell critics, ``If you think we're mouthpieces for the league, just look at what Cherry said last week." But the truth is that the networks make sure they don't really anger the guys who supply the games.

Networks can try to be objective, but the fact is that once they've paid millions or billions for a product like the NHL, NFL, NBA or even CFL, they're not about to threaten that investment.

That's not to say the leagues have a say in who gets on air, but if they're not happy with someone they let the networks know. In many cases, the networks listen.

That's simply the way it is. 



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