2013 Villain: Gary Bettman
Nominated for: his one-network approach to sports coverage.
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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s description of the league’s Canadian broadcast and multimedia rights agreement with Rogers Communications is correct: it does indeed transform the way fans will watch hockey in this country. The $5.2-billion deal gives Rogers national rights to all NHL games on all platforms in all languages, as well as to special events like the NHL draft. It remains to be seen if that change will serve sports fans any better than the current arrangement.
Rogers has turned itself into a sports powerhouse: it owns Sportsnet, Sportsnet One, Sportsnet World, and Score Media; operates the Toronto Blue Jays and the Rogers Centre; and along with Bell Canada, owns a majority stake in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which includes the Maple Leafs, the Raptors, the FC, and the Marlies. This concentration of ownership certainly enhances Rogers’ ability to deliver content, but isn’t reassuring once you start wondering what stories reporters can tell about teams owned by the same company that cuts their paycheques. It may not seem important—it’s just a game, after all—but journalistic integrity matters in all beats, and some stories (for example, the effects of concussions and other head injuries on players in the NHL and NFL) go deeper than a recap of the previous day’s game scores.
Another question: where does this leave the country’s public broadcaster? The CBC, whose Hockey Night in Canada is rightly called a national institution, retains the right to air NHL games for the next four seasons. But Rogers will control the production, which means that the CBC could find itself airing a version of HNIC that is markedly different from the one it has spent decades establishing. The network won’t have to spend its own money to produce HNIC, but it won’t retain any of the revenue from the program either, which is a serious financial blow—one that network president Hubert Lacroix confirmed will result in job losses. After that four year transition period, the CBC will be left with a gaping hole in its calendar: hundreds of new programming hours to fill, and less revenue with which to create it. (Some argue this is actually good in the long run, as it will force the broadcaster to re-evaluate its priorities and hone in on its public service mission. That might be comforting if the federal government were inclined to support the CBC rather than cut its funding year after year.)
The deal also leaves TSN largely out in the cold. The network still has regional deals with the Winnipeg Jets and the Toronto Maple Leafs, as well as the rights to the world junior championships, but the bottom line is they got outbid, and could yet see the departure of some top hockey talent.
As the league’s commissioner, Bettman is the key architect of this deal; the one-network approach was, in his own words, his team’s vision. It’s a vision that deals a blow to two Toronto-headquartered networks during what is already a tough time for media properties, and one with no clear upside for fans who will have to take or leave whatever coverage Rogers chooses to offer, at whatever prices it chooses to set.