Leaner Sportsnet adjusts course at midway point of game-changing NHL rights deal

Bob Cole, Bob McCown, Nick Kypreos, John Shannon and more.

There’s an impressive list of sports broadcasters who are not broadcasting sports at the moment after massive changes at Sportsnet, which has reached the halfway point of a 12-year, $5.2-billion deal for national rights to the NHL.

Asked recently about the moves — with the hockey and radio ratings seasons now underway — new Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley made no apologies.

“You know, I’d rather focus on the future,” said Yabsley, the successor to Scott Moore, who stepped down a year ago. “Those guys are quality people, good broadcasters and true pros. That’s about all I want to say about those guys.”

Cole joined the Hockey Night In Canada crew in 1973 and was its primary voice from 1980 to 2008. McCown is a radio institution locally, after basically inventing the sports-talk format. Kypreos is a former player who reinvented himself as a broadcaster and had worked for Sportsnet from day one. Shannon morphed from TV producer and backroom mover-and-shaker — he won an Emmy at NBC for its live coverage of the Salt Lake City Games — to on-air insider, putting his knowledge of the NHL’s inner workings to use.

Cole got a farewell tour last season. The rest felt like they didn’t get a proper goodbye.

The changes at Sportsnet simply reflect a changing sports media landscape, Yabsley said.

“It is definitely a fragmented entertainment market, and we are always fighting for eyeballs and listeners, but we’re doing well. What we’re doing is trying to position this company for the next five, 10 years. We’ve been really successful the last few years on the strength of our hockey, basketball, baseball programming, (becoming) the No. 1 sports media brand.

“We know we’ve got a lot of work to do … to adapt to our viewers, listeners and clients — actually with advertisers. So really, anything we’re doing is positioning us for the future.”

From the outside, it looked like a purge. By comparison, TSN appears to be staying the course.

Bob McKenzie, the face of TSN’s hockey coverage, recently agreed to a five-year contract extension, while its news and highlights shows outperform their Sportsnet counterparts. TSN sets the standard for coverage of big days on the hockey calendar — such as the trade deadline and opening day of the free-agent market. There were also outbursts of joy at TSN Radio after its drive-home show — Overdrive, with host Bill Hayes and retired NHLers Jeff O’Neill and Jamie McLennan — slayed the ratings giant, McCown’s Prime Time Sports.

While Sportsnet has only made minor tweaks to its hockey presentation on television, the game plan at Sportsnet 590 The FAN has been overhauled. Among the notable changes:

  • Hockey Central at Noon with Jeff Marek goes head to head with TSN’s Leafs Lunch for two hours.
  • A show built from the remnants of McCown’s Prime Time Sports and hosted by Jeff Blair runs from 2 to 5 p.m.
  • Tim and Sid goes from 5 to 7 p.m., with TV simulcast.

Audiences today expect access on any device whenever they want it. That’s reflected in Sportsnet’s changes, with much of the radio content also available in podcast form and streaming options — Sportsnet Now, NHL Live — as an alternative to cable.

“The logic around the whole changes to radio is consistent with sort of how we’re approaching the whole business … We don’t think of it as radio shows (or) TV shows anymore. We think of them as multi-platform shows.”

The backdrop to any conversation about Sportsnet is the effect of that 12-year deal hammered out six years ago. Both TSN and Sportsnet hold regional rights now, but only Sportsnet can broadcast or stream games nationally.

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The long-term agreement has been portrayed in some corners as an albatross for Sportsnet, since payments to the NHL increase year after year. It was believed they started at $300 million and will finish at $500 million — costs that quite possibly have not been matched by revenues, leading to the ousting of expensive talent.

“First of all, for the record, we love the deal,” he said. “The package of rights that was acquired was definitely ahead of its time. In the early years, a lot of the things in terms of multi-platform and content consumption and (other) opportunities … were in their infancy.

“So the ability, for ourselves, to evolve with the technology and monetize through that, that really was always the plan. We’re almost halfway — we’re in year six — so we love what it brings to the table.”

Kevin McGran

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