There was big news in TV sports this week in Canada. Rogers has let go its senior VP of production Gord Cutler, who was in charge of producing the hockey coverage which included Hockey Night in Canada.
Getting the blame for this are the poor ratings for the NHL which are off 30 percent over the two years of the contract. No doubt, the woes this year are due to the poor performance of Canada’s seven lousy NHL teams who are all missing the playoffs. But there is more to it than that and I will get to that in a little bit.
There seems to be mixed reaction to this news. People in the industry seem positively baffled, especially by the timing of it right before the NHL playoffs. Rogers has been going through yet another of these typical Canadian media bloodbaths right now, with big names like Breakfast Television’s Jennifer Valentyne losing their gigs in the layoffs. With Cutler gone, this is really going to hurt morale of people still there on the hockey side. On top of that, Rogers broke the bank to the tune of $5.2 billion for the NHL package. Any ordinary Canadian sports fan could tell you this deal was insane and that the NHL is not worth this waste of money, so people are thinking Cutler is taking the fall for decisions that are really not his doing.
On the other hand, fans have really not been happy with the changes at Hockey Night in Canada ever since Rogers took the production over. The issues include hiring George Stroumboulopoulos as host, demoting and exiling Ron MacLean to Hometown Hockey on Sunday nights (a production which has been a ratings bust, by the way), cutting back Don Cherry’s time on Coach’s Corner, getting rid of After Hours and the Hot Stove League, getting rid of the musical montages, and a host of other unpopular moves. In fact, there has been a storm of criticism about the changes there.
The truth is Canada’s crappy NHL teams aren’t all to blame for the crappy HNIC ratings. It’s the crappy presentation that is also to blame! Rogers’ hockey coverage has been bleeping boring to watch, the commentators seem bored as heck. There’s no real build-up to the games anymore, no sense of excitement. And Stroumboulopoulos is simply not a hockey guy, the fans think he is better off elsewhere. These are all common complaints. Going in, I had high hopes Rogers would put together this all-star team of talent and give Canada the best hockey coverage we had ever seen. And they have plenty of talent at their disposal with MacLean, Elliotte Friedman, Scott Oake and other people, but the whole production is just dragging them all down. The only good news is the actual games themselves are well-produced. They look good, at least. It’s the pregame shows and the segments between periods that are the main problem.
Since a lot of the blame for the changes was directed at Cutler, many fans are actually glad to see him go and are hoping changes are on the way to turn around Hockey Night in Canada – such as reinstating MacLean, for instance. My worry is this could be just the start of many Rogers cost-cutting moves that will end up improving nothing. I hope not.
The other problem for Rogers’ hockey coverage is much more fundamental. Hockey doesn’t seem to be as popular as it used to be. It seems to me it is losing ground in Canada to other sports, especially among the Millenial generation.
The revival of baseball interest in Canada, especially with the Blue Jays, has done a particular number on the NHL. Even this week their baseball games have been getting bigger numbers than Hockey Night in Canada. The Rogers baseball coverage is getting over a million viewers a game, way more than many of these NHL games — including even the regional ones TSN has the rights for.
As for other sports, the NFL is, of course, a behemoth. The CFL has a cult following, particularly in Saskatchewan. The UFC is really popular. The NBA Raptors have been winning and that has helped them in the ratings, and soccer coverage with the Barclays Premier League, the Champions League and MLS has made major inroads. These basketball and soccer games may still not get the kind of TV numbers hockey is getting, but more people are tuning in and that is surely having an impact on the NHL’s numbers. They’re losing, while the other sports are gaining, even if only modestly.
The fact is the other sports seem much more fun to watch — especially the bombs-away Blue Jays right now with all their home runs. The NHL has frankly done itself few favours with Canadian fans. NHL games are increasingly dull, low scoring and predictable to watch, the game is under an increasing microscope due to concussions and other issues, and commissioner Gary Bettman is wildly unpopular.
No wonder ratings are down 30 percent in Canada! With Canada’s teams now shut out of the NHL playoffs, it’s going to be a very long spring for bean counters over at Rogers. They’d better hope the Blue Jays (with a 2-4 record to start 2016) get back to winning soon, because they are their only hope for good Sportsnet TV ratings.