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Rogers and HNIC: We Have the Facts and We're Voting No

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Last week, Rogers got their first look at TV ratings for their 12 year, $5 billion NHL rights and it wasn't pretty. Viewership is down across the board. Michael Forbes takes a look at what might be causing such dismal ratings...

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Avert Your Eyes!
Avert Your Eyes!
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

I gave up on the NHL when the league locked out the players for the second third time, eliminating another season of hockey for no reason other than greed.

I checked out on the Toronto Maple Leafs after the big juicy brains down at MLSE decided the best way to address Randy Carlyle's ineptitude and failure was to extend his contract. That's not my understanding of accountability but I've never played the pro game or managed anything larger than a division of 10 year olds playing rec hockey.

I abandoned Hockey Night in Canada sometime in November, I had my fill of bad games presented badly.

Last week, Rogers got a look at their annual TV ratings and, surprise surprise, NHL ratings are down across the board. Seems I am not alone in tuning out.

Anyone paying attention to the weekly ratings should not be surprised. Week after week Canadians have shown a far greater appetite for The Big Bang Theory or the Flash than anything involving a puck or a stick. Like a weak Eastern Conference team backing into the playoffs, the ratings for the HNIC main game are fortunate to fall somewhere in the 7 to 9 spot.

As someone who loves sports, is fascinated by the business of sport and who was turned off NHL hockey, I thought I’d provide my thoughts on the challenge facing Rogers, the folly of their claim they could increase ratings by 20%, and why their ratings are plummeting.

1. There aren't that many dedicated hockey fans in Canada

I feel like I should add a parenthetical "seriously" at the end of that sentence.

In 2009, the research firm Harris conducted a national poll on hockey in Canada and found that only 12% of adult Canadians followed hockey very closely.

The percentage of Canadians who don't follow hockey at all? 61%

I suspect that Rogers looked at this audience segmentation and thought with so many disengaged viewers a small conversion rate could deliver huge ratings. Obviously that hasn't happened.

I don't think it's because converting people into hockey fans is that challenging, the Winter Olympics and World Juniors demonstrate there is massive appetite for hockey in Canada.  I would argue, and the ratings show, casual hockey fans have an appetite for the blockbuster game, the big event -- not for mid-week matches between NHL minnows.

2. Tone Deafness

Rogers promoted this hockey season like it was the next Lego Movie or Lady Gaga release.

From Today's Parent to Canadian Business, no magazine in the Rogers empire was left without a splashy NHL ad campaign. Rogers corporate HQ at 333 Bloor Street was festooned with all manner of marketing materials promoting the start of the NHL season. Mark Messier has become the most ubiquitous man in Canada, schilling NHL games in incredibly improbable locations like Vancouver (some tone deaf casting there).

Even the makeover of the HNIC set got more ink and media coverage than most American NHL teams generate in a season.

Rogers turned on the hype machine and promised us an amazing hockey experience. Then they gave us Glenn Healy. It was a brutal bait and switch, as if  Rogers discovered Canadians were absolutely crazy about ice cream, bought all the ice cream rights, and then served us spumoni with stale toppings.

3. The on-air product is joyless

Speaking of stale toppings, my goodness is HNIC a joyless production.

Anyone who has ever said "no man is an island" has never watched poor Elliotte Friedman on a panel with former players who are poster boys for impending CTE.

It's as if the hosts, panelists, play-by-play and colour commentary guys aren't aware hockey is a game, a pastime, a fun pursuit. I recently saw a grim faced Scott Oake with Glenn Healy doing a stand up in the rafters of some rink. In their somber suits they were as dour as Whitehouse correspondents weighing in on another failed peace accord between far away nations.

The producers don’t seem to be aware that this is supposed to be entertainment. Instead of joy and fun and celebration, we get hours of faux arguments, vapid clichés, and strawman "analysis."

Don't many fans turn to sports to escape this very thing?

And there are so many talking heads, panelists and sets. HNIC is like a living diorama designed explicitly to warn Canadians of the calamity that awaits when the old boys network is taken to its logical conclusion.

At worst Rogers' hockey production is insulting, at best it drives countless Canadians diving for the mute button. Imagine what it's like being a Rogers Sports executive knowing every Saturday night nearly one million Canadians are watching TV and wondering how PJ Stock is employed.

I was going to ask why anyone would watch the new HNIC by choice -- the simpering Craig Simpson, the caustic Glen Healy, and the aphasic PJ Stock -- but one look at the ratings and it’s clear that people aren’t watching.

Perhaps they've had a taste of this abrasive mindless stew and they don't like it.

4.  Blockbusters vs. the Long Tail (AKA - How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Left Shark?)

What do people want when it comes to entertainment products? I've been reading Blockbusters by Anita Elberse. Her research into the sports and entertainment industry shows that increasingly people want spectacle, they want the big show, the sizzle. The huge live event that's a must see.

The top earning films, the bestselling novels, the highest rated networks and most of the top sports teams in Europe are all pursuing the blockbuster strategy of signing the biggest names and using them to create must-see spectacles. Consider: in 2013, 102 songs were responsible for 15% of all iTunes sales.

At one point the blockbuster was Hockey Night in Canada. It was the big show at the end of the week. Now for hockey, it's the Winter Olympics or the World Juniors. What it is most definitely not is a mid-week game in February between the New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators. There's no way to sell that game as sizzle or steak.

The NHL season is near endless. There are 1,230 regular season NHL games from October to April. The playoffs can add over 100 more games and go until mid-June.

By contrast the NFL, the most popular North American sports league by far, plays just 256 regular season games. Their season is five months from Labour Day to late January. The NHL season is twice as long and has five times as many games.

In an age where people want spectacle, big stars and blockbusters, 1,230 games over 9 months is a tough sell. How many of them can be must-see? Even the 12% of Canadians who are die-hard hockey fans know all too well about the dog days of February.

Paradoxically, by offering more games to the average viewer, Rogers may be diluting interest in the game. If it's always on and always available how does the average viewer discern the games that are must-see?

It's easy to hate a Panthers vs Jets game on a Tuesday night but, as the ratings show, it's quite another thing to hate watch it.

5. The Leafs are garbage

As was predicted far and wide, the Leafs are awful. No thesaurus contains enough synonyms for "hot garbage", "tire fire" or "gong show" to fully and accurately describe this team.

To a certain extent, this is nothing new. The team didn't have a season above .500 for the entirety of the 1980s. They are two years from the ignominy of having to mark the 50th anniversary of their last Stanley Cup win. Their GM is a lame duck, MLSE's CEO is a hypocritical windbag with the self-awareness of moldy bread. Their previous capologist acted like a drunk in Vegas taking out pay day loans only to bet it all on 00 at the roulette table.

The Leafs have lacked a 1C and 1D for so long that it's gone beyond parody. A two minute clip of "First line centre; Dion needs a partner" in homage to Homer at the union bargaining table would have looped 1,489,871 times in the five years since the Leafs acquired Phaneuf. And yet these roster holes remain.

In short, the Leafs are awful, were expected to be awful and will continue to be awful. But for years, Leafs fans turned out en masse for hockey games, generating huge Saturday night ratings for HNIC. The bottom has fallen out of these numbers -- so what's different this year? What has made fans, for the first time in memory, tune out?

I'd suggest part of it is how the games are broadcast.

The Leafs are the only sports team I can think of whose weekly broadcast team is the opposite of homers. No other team has a broadcast crew that it is so happy to be so negative and seems so overjoyed to take a shot or two at not just the team, but the fans. I'm not asking for rose coloured glasses or blue Kool-Aid sugar coated content. What I am asking for is a bit of perspective.

This is especially galling given the team's economic position and, one would think, power. MLSE should be pushing for on-air talent that represent the best of the game and the best for their club, who bring some joy to the proceedings (Lord knows the Leafs won't).

It's one thing for the Leafs to play so badly but it's quite another to have the HNIC crew make the game experience even worse. And so fewer Leaf fans tune in, which leads to fewer fans sticking around for the Western games. And on it goes like the Leafs missing the post-season and swapping out talent for grit, it's a vicious cycle of suck that has long term consequences.

MLSE is also hugely to blame for alienating Leafs fans.

A few years ago, I had lunch with an MLSE suit who said the organization was contemplating a marketing campaign called "Fans First." I had what might be the most unprofessional reaction in my life - I snorted like an eight year old hearing a dirty word at the dinner table.

This is an organization that charges fans $40 (Forty  dollars!!!)  to come to the ACC to meet the team and tour the dressing rooms. An organization that had an honest to goodness connection with the fans in the square outside the ACC - public City of Toronto space - which they tried to sell-off to yet another sponsor.

The ACC is a morgue, ticket prices are outrageous, concession prices are extortionate extortionate and the on-ice product is terrible. You want to keep fans engaged, don't bilk them of every possible dollar.

Fans first indeed.

* * *

So, what can be done?

  1. Dial back the promotional blitz – we’ve seen the product and it isn’t living up to the hype; the ROI on the advertising and marketing costs clearly isn’t there.
  2. Address the tone deafness. Who thought Messier promoting the Canucks was a good idea?
  3. Give Canadians a reason not to mute the broadcasts – there are too many voices during play and it’s too much of a monoculture. Go with a two man booth and tell them to lighten up.
  4. Reduce the number of talking heads on the panels and bring in a wider range of opinion. If you're trying to broaden the viewership base, there has to be better choices than Doug McLean and Mike Milbury. Nobody wants to watch Sports Shouting.
  5. Steal from the best – BBC Match of the Day provides a fantastic analysis of all the Premier League games. They do it with just one host and a few guests (and great graphics)
  6. Accept the rating numbers are legit and that they will remain so until the Leafs turn it around (another lesson here is: maybe don’t kick the cash cow when it tips over)
  7. The Leafs need to do a much better job recognizing their fans - not looking to monetize every aspect of fandom and the in-game experience would be a good place to start.

* * *

I gave up on the NHL when the league locked out the players.  I gave up on the Leafs when they renewed Carlyle. I gave up on Hockey Night in Canada when their hype fell well short of the product, when they chose their on-air talent so poorly, and when they stopped treating hockey like a game.

The Rogers NHL contract runs until 2025. The viewership numbers might bounce back by then. In light of Rogers' decisions to date, the increasing rate of cord cutting, and the growing demand for blockbusters and spectacles over long tail content, you can count me among the doubtful.