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Canadians didn't watch the Stanley Cup

The ratings are in, and they were the worst in years.

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Oh look, a viewer!
Oh look, a viewer!
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Only three weeks ago Rogers was trumpeting the success of their NHL broadcast rights deal in a press release. They  identified it as the reason they had usurped TSN to become "the #1 Sports Brand on TV in Canada", whatever that is supposed to mean.

At the time I pointed out publishing these numbers was about securing advertising dollars, as confirmed by Scott Moore, President of Sportsnet and NHL properties at Rogers:

Being Number 1 is more than just bragging rights. We should now be the first call for all advertisers. If you want to reach sports fans, we're the ones to get you there.

We've heard conflicting reports about Rogers' hockey ratings all year, with Rogers often claiming they are higher than implied by the data. Yesterday we learned that the ratings for the Stanley Cup Final in Canada were in fact abysmal.

As reported by Chris Zelkovich at Yahoo, ratings plunged relative to past years:

According to Numeris research, total playoff ratings were down 20 per cent, thanks to a final that generated limited interest.

Ratings for the final were 12 per cent lower than last year and the lowest since 2009. Monday's deciding game between Tampa Bay and Chicago was also off 20 per cent from last season and was the least-watched Stanley Cup finale since the seventh game of the New Jersey-Anaheim series in 2003.

You know it's bad when ratings are as low as they were in the season where Brian Gionta won a Stanley Cup on a team with Scott Stevens and Joe Nieuwendyk.

The low ratings are especially problematic given how, as reported by the Globe and Mail back in December, Rogers promised advertisers that hockey ratings would be up 20%.

Rogers is running around 9 per cent behind the 20-per-cent increase in television viewers it promised advertisers, who were also told there was a commensurate increase in advertising rates.

Only a few weeks after that news was published, Rogers openly questioned the validity of the ratings numbers:

We have been in discussions with Numeris for some time about the reporting of both regional and national sports viewing," said Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL Properties at Rogers, as quoted at the Globe and Mail.

"As you probably know, several sports properties seem to be down, which is contrary to what we are seeing south of the border."

That was laughed off by the rest of the Canadian media:

"Are we to believe that there's an inherent bias exclusively for NHL viewers?" CTV sports and entertainment president Phil King asked."It doesn't seem to affect baseball or football, but NHL hockey. That's just silly. It appears there's only one company in Canada that believes this.

Rogers can keep spinning the ratings numbers, but they can't escape the fact that Canadians really are tuning out.

For me, the biggest change to hockey on TV is a loss of intimacy. While everything is more crisp and colourful, the cavernous, sparsely filled set filled with men in suits makes it sterile and corporate. At times it feels like George Lucas was hired to direct, and he set out to cram as much flashing and glowing stuff on the screen at once, just like in the prequels. It's great the hosts can get out from behind the main desk once and a while, I like that, but it's jarring to be hurled 100 feet across the stage, sometimes to a second level (!), just to transition to a new segment.

The core problem is that after all the dollars spent on new sets and cameras, they didn't actually innovate the coverage of the game or the league. There was no effort to bring in new or fresh voices with different perspectives, like analytic experts; they still rely on the useless hallway player interviews at intermissions for filler content; those few things that made a personal connection, and a sense of excitement, like the HNIC opening montages, were sent to the dumpster; and there are too few minutes allocated to discussions about the business side of hockey, something that has become more critical with every new CBA, and of which fans seem very poorly informed.

It turns out this was actually a deliberate strategy.

The Globe and Mail interviewed Guy Laurence, CEO of Rogers Communications three weeks ago and he made some eye-popping remarks about the direction they have chosen for NHL coverage.

The NHL has become one of Rogers’ closest allies. Mr. Laurence and Mr. Bettman have forged a tight relationship and stay in regular contact. They have seen eye to eye on plans to develop new digital technologies and bring a "stars-first philosophy" to Rogers’ coverage of the league, "so it’s not about escrows and strikes and fights and all this kind of stuff," Mr. Laurence said.

A "stars-first" philosophy? This isn't the NBA. "Stars-first" is not how hockey games work, so it's not how hockey broadcasting should work. "Escrows and strikes and fights" are a reality of the league, so they should be talked about as necessary. It's no surprise Bettman would not like that, but surely he doesn't have that much pull at Rogers, does he?

Nothing we’ve done in season one was not done without us discussing it with the NHL. And, to be clear, that’s not because they sit in some kind of policing role. It’s because we have an extremely good partnership," Mr. Laurence said, noting that staff from Rogers and the NHL are in touch "daily" to share research and data and decide "on a day-to-day basis what they’re doing."

Good grief! The NHL, and Bettman in particular, have been noticeably tone-deaf on hockey issues this past season. Whether embarrassing himself on sexism at games, to ridiculous denials about the popularity and value of Capgeek:

We’re not getting a lot of feedback on [a Capgeek-style site]. It’s not something that seems to be driving fan interest as much as perhaps the interest of the people [in the media] in this room, and your colleagues.

Bettman even claims the changes he demanded of Rogers are the reason Sportsnet ratings "are up", even though they are not!

"I think with less of that talk, that’s one of the reasons ratings are up," Mr. Bettman said. "I think a lot of people found it annoying."

We know you sure did, Gary.

Rogers says their hockey coverage only needs "tweaking", but the reality is it needs a new philosophy.