After this past Wednesday’s announcement that TSN’s new station, TSN2, would be airing 23 games this season, local Raptors’ fans were in an uproar.
And I didn’t blame them.
For those who had Rogers as their cable provider, it essentially meant that over a quarter of the Dino’s season might be blacked-out from their viewing.
The flip side was of course that either a) Rogers got a deal done with TSN and acquired the rights to carry TSN2 or b) that fans could simply say "the hell with Rogers" (something I’ve wanted to say out of frustration thanks to their customer service as it is) and make the move to Bell.
However it’s not as simple as that.
In Toronto, many condos and even houses now have exclusive agreements with one cable provider or another, therefore every apartment must use the service provided. As an example of this, I rent an apartment in a house and upon signing the lease I was informed that Rogers was servicing the entire house and therefore if I wanted Bell, I was out of luck.
And really the big question for me regardless of a switch was why this whole situation occurred in the first place? While many chose to throw blame around I had a hard time grasping why at a fundamental level, MLSE would choose to opt into a situation in which it essentially made it harder for the average Raptors’ fan to watch their team! Yes, all 82 games are available, and available in HD apparently, but to have them spread across five stations? And knowing full well that Bell Globemedia owns TSN and therefore is hardly going to look to partner up with Rogers without some "discussion," why would MLSE endanger their prime viewership?
So let’s take a step back here before we get into some answers.
For starters, it’s a well-known fact that Raptors simply don’t have much drawing power outside of Ontario, Toronto more specifically, and the NBA as a whole just isn’t the force in Canada that it is in the US. In fact, Nielson ratings typically present NBA basketball as a bit of a statistical horror story in our nation. Even in the recent post-Jordan ratings dog-years (a rained-out Nascar telecast surpassed a Lakers-Cavs game in terms of ratings in 2007), the average Nielson rating for an NBA game in the US (2.2 in 2007) dwarfed that of Canada.
Yes, good ol’ Canada, where Nielson would frequently report that curling and figure skating easily beat out NBA ball in the ratings wars on a regular basis.
Now granted that is changing; Raptors' regular-season audiences on TSN, Rogers Sportsnet and the Score grew again last season with TSN up 6% from 2007, Sportsnet up +13% and the Score up 7% year-over-year.
And perhaps the most positive sign was at the CBC, where "in its first year as a Raptors broadcaster, topped all Canadian nets with 181,000 viewers for seven Sunday afternoon telecasts."
We’re not talking Stanley Cup playoffs numbers here, but it’s a start.
Perhaps then MLSE’s idea was to use TSN2 to expand the game, seeing as it possibly made the Raptors’ product more accessible across the country outside of Ontario and the GTA. Hailing from the Maritimes originally myself, I could see how this would be a big boost for fans outside of Ontario considering that in the past, the majority of Raptors’ games were limited to the Ontario segment of Sportsnet.
However as mentioned, the core of Raptor support is still the result of viewers in the Greater Toronto Area tuning in, and that’s why at first glance, a decision by the Raptors’ governing body (MLSE) which could possibly damage the current relationship with their central supporters, left me scratching my head.
So to that end I reached out to the Raptors’ Director of Media Operations, Jim LaBumbard, and asked him the following question:
We understand that MLSE wanted to branch out to a bigger audience outside of the GTA, but it's admittedly a bit puzzling as to why the team would put its main core of fans in a position where they may not be able to view over a quarter of the team's games this year. We understand that fans could switch cable service providers but I'm not sure why MLSE would want to force their core Raptors' fans into such a situation. As well, many folks can not switch from one service to another as many buildings and condos now have exclusive agreements with one of the two cable providers.
Can you offer some insight for our readership?
In his response, Jim explained that "it was early in this game, so to speak."
With only one game scheduled on TSN2 for November and ongoing talks, he stated that "everyone is confident that an agreement will get done between Rogers and TSN."
More interesting however was his follow-up point clarifying that MLSE and TSN "had entered into a deal in the summer and this was certainly not done with the intention of leaving a certain segment of fans without access to more than a quarter of the schedule."
He finished by stating that:
"Obviously, it's important to us that as many people as possible have access to our product."
A big thanks to Jim for the prompt response and one that I think we as fans can use to start making sense of this whole business. Was it possible that MLSE had not anticipated such a fall-out from this decision and maybe even thought that a deal between Rogers and TSN would have been done by now? Perhaps MLSE was simply looking to expand product access outside of the GTA as Jim mentioned, and the turf war between Bell and Rogers threw a monkey wrench in things after the fact?
Reading the official press release from the Raptors regarding the schedule announcement makes things sound even more like latter was true. Statements like this one by Tom Anselmi, executive vice-president and chief operating officer, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, really bring this point home:
"We're excited to have the CBC, Raptors NBA TV, The Score and TSN as part of the broadcast line-up during the 2008-09 NBA season…The promotional power of these four networks supports growing basketball across Canada, and bringing the Raptors to millions of homes coast-to-coast."
And this one from Scott Moore, executive director of CBC Sports, takes things one step further:
"CBC Sports is proud to present the Toronto Raptors for our second season…We welcome the opportunity to showcase Canada's NBA team to its legions of fans from coast to coast and reaffirm our commitment to providing Canadians with the very best in live sports programming."
So if MLSE’s main idea was to bring Raptors’ basketball to the masses on an even larger scale, where did things go wrong at a local level? Can Raptors’ fans get ready for a massive boycott of TSN for deciding to air games on TSN2? Or should Rogers be prepared to lose thousands of customers to Bell?
I wasn’t sure.
After the MLSE research, I wondered if there wasn’t still a lot more to this going on behind the scenes.
Reading William Houston’s blog on the GlobeandMail.com seems to confirm this as William breaks down some of the various stations' rationales for their decisions so far.
Many of the reasons are somewhat political in nature, and Houston reveals that: "At this point, the optics for Rogers, in rejecting TSN2, are problematic. As MLSE's leading sponsor, Rogers has an interest in promoting MLSE teams.
Since Rogers has not given a reason for denying TSN2 carriage, the growing perception is it is protecting Sportsnet, which gave up on basketball and competes against TSN and TSN2."
A further call to Rogers by myself reaffirmed that like the Transformers, there was indeed "more than meets the eye" to this state of affairs.
Speaking to me about the whole TSN2 situation, a manager at Rogers explained that to his knowledge, TSN2 was never actually intended to be solely a Canadian station. Much like BBC Canada and other examples of "regionalized television segmentation," TSN2 was originally supposed to be somewhat of a conduit of Canadian sports programming into the US. It was only after talks with MLSE began that TSN realized they had the opportunity to put a strangle-hold on the Raptors market and carry more games than any other station, all the while still being able to give their main breadwinner, hockey, front-and-center attention on TSN1.
In fact, while TSN and Bell fall under the same conglomerate umbrella, the Rogers employee informed me that Bell didn’t even have the rights to TSN2 originally, and therefore had to go through acquisition talks as well, which may have pushed the entire process back to where it is now.
Finally, the Rogers employee informed me that indeed they were getting numerous complaints from fans and that getting TSN2 on board as soon as possible was a top priority. Their customer service reps were getting almost daily updates on the situation and that talks were still in progress. He also felt that a resolution would be forthcoming in the next month or so and therefore Raptors’ fans could rest assured that Rogers would still be getting them their fix of Dino-ball.
At the end of the call however I did have to laugh a bit at all of this. Rogers by all accounts was losing money on RaptorsTV and that was apparently one of the reasons they cut games down to only two this season. However now, I wondered if in the end they’d be saving any money once they ponied up for the rights for licensing TSN2. Add on the additional complexities regarding MLSE being partly owned by Bell Globe Media, a 15 per cent share, and having business partnerships with Rogers, and you start to get the idea that we have a Raptors’ fan-base drowning in bureaucratic quicksand.
In fact I’m pretty certain, and not just from the tone of Jim’s email, that MLSE is none too pleased about how this whole things is unravelling. What was supposed to be almost a celebration of the expansion of the sport and the Raptor product has started to turn into a bit of a PR nightmare for all parties involved.
The good news is that like some others in the media, I too feel that a deal will get done before too many games are sacrificed. As the Globe’s Michael Grange pointed out recently in his blog, "Rogers can't afford not to carry TSN2, because, over time, some people may well switch to Bell for their TV needs. And since the key to the cable business is keeping subscribers – and all those monthly fees from now until death, basically – they're not really going to risk that, or risk new customers not signing up with them in the first place.
And TSN can't really afford to keep TSN2 off of Rogers because, well, who would watch it? Freezing out the largest television market in the country is just really dumb."
I’d have to agree although this article would be incomplete if we didn’t discuss the "what ifs" of the whole situation.
Yes, numerous Raptor fans may have to switch to Bell where possible or be left in the dark during TSN2 broadcasts.
And yes there would be a lot of unhappy fans.
However there are other considerations as well.
For one, TSN is also carrying the conference finals and select playoff games, as well as NBA All-Star Weekend, and providing "exclusive Canadian coverage of the NBA Finals." Perhaps the Raps are the main game in town, but basketball itself and therefore the Raptors indirectly, benefited from the coverage it received at bars and restaurants, especially during the playoffs. Those same bars now may be showing something completely different.
Considering it seems like one of MLSE’s mandates, besides simply the bottom line on their books, is to expand the reach of the product, I would think that not being able to provide the casual viewer maximum exposure would be something else that would leave a bad taste in MLSE’s mouth. Even with contracts already signed, you can be certain that MLSE would find a way to put pressure on both TSN and Rogers so that such a situation wouldn’t manifest itself. Acquiring the rights to playoff basketball and All-Star games simply lends itself to bar-room viewing. How many bars using Rogers who generally draw hockey crowds will care to make the shift to Bell? It’s one thing if basketball happens to be on TV but it’s another to get establishments to make cable decisions based on it.
Taking all of this into consideration I do feel a deal will be struck between Rogers and TSN in the coming months. Perhaps as both Grange and Doug Smith have articulated, a game or two will be sacrificed in the process thanks to the slow-turning wheels of bureaucracy, but in the end it’s best for all parties involved to finalize something.
The scariest part is that we’re talking about two of the biggest companies in Canada that directly compete with each other, sitting down and hashing something out. The two make our own Federal Government seem rationale and fleet-footed at times and for comparison’s sake the process may be akin to Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant trying to have an intellectual conversation over tea during WWE’s glory days.
If a deal doesn’t get done or it looks like a game or two will have to be sacrificed? Well the Fan590 and RaptorsTV’s Eric Smith through out an interesting idea on his blog recently, stating that "…if for some reason – a deal still isn’t done by the time the first TSN2 game rolls around, I wonder if Raptors NBA TV might be able to pick up the game as a simulcast or something?"
I’d second the idea and I think it’s something that would show fans that regardless of the current mess, the overall priority here was to support a ravenous Raptor fan base, one that kept this club rolling even during the team’s lean years.
Because right now, regardless of who did what, it’s hard not to feel as a Raptor fan that you’re getting the short end of the stick.
PS – More NBA Previews, this time examining the Southeast Division:
Matt McHale: Basketbawful
Brett: Queen City Hoops
Darren Heitner: SportsAgentBlog.com
Ben: Third Quarter Collapse
Rashad: Hoops Addict
Also see links to all the previews at CelticsBlog.com