An interesting hockey media development yesterday was longtime Sportsnet hockey reporter Chris Johnston departing the Rogers-owned network for a new platform where he will appear in The Star. Johnston was one of the cornerstones of Sportsnet’s hockey broadcast team, regularly appearing on Hockey Night in Canada’s Headlines intermission segment, and also for regular hits on Sportsnet’s radio stations and podcasts.
Johnston’s premier on The Star website included waxing nostalgic about reading the sports section when he was a child, and even later in life, at j-school when he would hang around the media gate of the arena to get a glimpse of and a chance to talk to one of the Leafs beat writers from The Star. It’s quite emotional, and parts of it familiar to many people about that same age for whom the Saturday newspaper sports section was a central focus of those mornings at home.
His hiring is also a testament to the willingness to spend on the The Star from its new owners, NordStar Capital. They bought out the business last year for about $52M capping a tumultuous decade for TorStar which saw their stock price drop by 95%. The new owners indicated that they would ramp up hiring for The Star, and for them to poach a highly respected (and highly paid) talent from a competitor is a good sign that is happening.
But that brought me to the feed from Canada Newswire about this hiring, and the actual press release from NordStar, which had a slightly different story. No nostalgia here. Only one thing: gambling.
Johnston will be taking a leadership role covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and the National Hockey League at large for the new gaming company’s sports betting business. Chris’ work will also be syndicated to other publications, including the Toronto Star.
So he’s not writing for The Star, his column for their sports betting business will be re-published there. That’s fine, but what happened to those nostalgic memories of Saturday morning newspapers gone by?
To be clear: this isn’t about Chris Johnston or the Toronto Star, specifically. His hiring is only the latest example of a trend across every type and form of publication in the sports media industry right now, and the trend is sweeping across it quickly. Johnston notes he was only approached about this two months ago. That’s an awfully quick turnaround for a major career move when you already have a great job, so the incentives to jump to his new employer must have been very convincing. Good for him.
A clear turning point for the sports betting industry in North America was in 2018 when the US Supreme Court rescinded a US federal law which prevented states from issuing new sports gambling licences. It impacted Canada this year when Parliament passed new legislation allowing single game sports betting, something which had been tried before, but had died in the Senate (yes, they do things there from time to time!) This go round they were more cooperative.
Single game betting is a game changer. It’s easy and simple to understand for someone with little experience reading odds and lists of over/under options—someone like me! It’s something anyone can get in on with little to no knowledge, which operators really like as it means we will probably lose all our money to them. Cashing in on stupid people betting is a lucrative and consistent revenue stream that now even media owners want a piece of, especially sports media owners.
NordStar has already acknowledged they intend to use revenue from a new online gambling operation to fund their lavish spending at the Toronto Star. The Globe and Mail has reported this operation is in development now, with a plan to be launched before the end of the year.
In the US, casino and gambling business Bally’s Corporation paid for the rights to rebrand what used to be “FOX Sports” regional networks as Bally Sports. The stations now have an obnoxious opaque score bug crossing the entire bottom of the screen, which I guess isn’t a big deal for say, baseball, but does occasionally block some of the play in hockey. However, that real estate on our screens is precious territory for Bally’s. The future plan is to have betting odds there and to direct viewers to their affiliated websites to place bets on the game that is in progress on the rest of the screen.
We’re in a new era here, and this brief commentary is not meant to moralise about it, I simply want to make the observation that it is happening, and to document it. As someone with an interest in the Canadian hockey, media, and finance business worlds, I find it fascinating this change is happening so quickly, and with so little discussion, like it’s fait a compli.
Perhaps the issue is that anyone who would or could report on it is also someone who would benefit from it. It’s like the entire sports media industry is in a conflict of interest over it so they all decided not to talk about this major change.
Let’s face it, everyone wants a piece of this rapidly growing pie. They’re literally jumping over to the other side of the table to get some of it, and what we’ve seen so far is only the early stages of the shake-out this will bring to the sports media world. More talent is going to move across that already blurred line between news vs. entertainment. This new gambling driven sports news era may even be the salvation for certain sports websites that can’t find traditional media buyers, and aren’t getting callbacks from the VCs for funding round Z.
After all, “you want some of this, don’t ya?”
The NHL knows the content that I really want to see. And, yes, that Marner pass is in here.
By the way, here’s the caption on the header photo for those wondering what the hell is going on there:
BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 13 1973: Derek Sanderson #17 and Bobby Orr #4 made a bet for one thousand dollars to the one that married first. Sanderson arrived at the Bruins dressing room for practice and dumped the money all in one dollar bills and pennies.