Wars tend to produce more casualties than victors, but the battle for Canada's sports fans is making them the winners -- at least for now.
When Rogers stunned the Canadian sports world last year by cornering the market on NHL broadcasts, TSN's time-honoured status as Canada's most popular and profitable cable channel appeared to be in serious peril. After all, if the competition owns the country's most valuable sports property, it's likely only a matter of time before you're looking up at them.
But TSN has indicated from Day 1 that it isn't going to sit in the corner and lick its wounds, even if those wounds might require emergency surgery. Shortly after Rogers signed the $5.2 billion cheque for NHL national rights, TSN inked its stars to long-term deals to keep them out of Rogers' hands. It also locked up its major properties with long-term deals.
This week, it fought back big time by launching three new channels -- TSN3, 4 and 5. It's a bold move, though there are no guarantees that having five feeds will be enough to keep TSN on top.
How this all works to help TSN retain its position as Canada's sports leader isn't quite clear. But there's no denying that at this point it's a great development for sports fans, who will now get more choice. Considering the fact that at this point the extra feeds won't add to your cable bill, you'll be able to watch a lot more sports that were previously unavailable for no extra charge.
That's a pretty good deal in anyone's books.
But let's be clear here. You won't be getting more of the sports that Canadians love most. You won't get more NHL hockey. You won't be getting more CFL. Rogers owns most of the former -- TSN still has regional rights to Maple Leafs, Senators, Jets and Canadiens (English-language) games -- and TSN already shows every CFL game. So unless it starts airing training camp scrimmages, that's all there is.
You'll probably get more Major League Baseball and it's possible you could see a little more NFL.You will definitely be able to watch more NBA, MLS and NCAA games.
But that may be the extent of it.
You're not likely to see a lot more CIS or other amateur sports -- unless TSN decides to invest big time in sports that usually lose money. But TSN doesn't make millions by airing expensive sportiest that have limited audiences.
That's not to say the new TSN channels will be purveyors of lawnmower racing and minor-league dodgeball. There surely will be more world junior hockey coverage, for example, with the games that normally never get to air now available. The same goes for curling, European soccer and other events that produce thousands of hours of games that seldom get televised.
There will also be the tons of sports that TSN already owns through its relationship with ESPN. All those who complain that you can't get ESPN here can now stop complaining. This will more or less be ESPN with more NBA, Major League Baseball, ESPN's panel shows and hot-dog-eating contests. There will be acres of NCAA basketball, football, volleyball and a myriad other college sports.
This will all work for the fans. Whether it works for TSN is another matter.
A lot of this stuff doesn't make it to air because it has limited interest. While the Toronto Raptors scored big ratings during the recent NBA playoffs, the rest of the NBA post-season drew the kind of audiences the sport usually attracts: tiny ones. (And tiny is an upgrade on what the NBA does during the regular season.)
One reason Canadian networks don't air much NCAA sports is because nobody watches them. Small audiences produce small ad rates, so TSN isn't going to make money there. Since secondary channels (TSN2, Sportsnet One) traditionally don't draw big audiences for anything, things look even less promising on the ad front.
But ad revenue is generally gravy in the Canadian specialty sports world. The key to success is getting the distributors -- Rogers, Bell etc. -- to pay subscriber fees for the channels. But if TSN sticks to its word and doesn't charge extra for the new channels, that revenue stream isn't part of the equation.
At this point, this is more about maintaining an audience. With the NHL over on Sportsnet, TSN needs to keep viewers on its product. Maybe by matching Sportsnet's volume of channels, it can siphon off enough eyeballs to keep it on top.
Or, maybe, after a couple of years it decides to start charging for new channels.
But until then, viewers can revel in the extra choice they've been given.