Thursday December 2nd, 2010

The possible sale of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to Rogers Communications sparked fears that Ron MacLean's and Don Cherry's beloved telecasts will vanish. (Dave Sanford/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

Could Hockey Night in Canada really disappear? That's what some TV types are wondering in the wake of reports that Rogers Communications is negotiating to buy the majority share of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. It's the kind of story that makes for sensational reading, but it's based on lots of assumptions and speculative premises.

The Toronto Star reported yesterday that the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, owner of 66 percent of the sports empire that includes the Maple Leafs, could be selling to a company that owns, among other things, the Sportsnet regional cable networks and the new national cable network Sportsnet One. The price would be a reported $1.3 billion and for that money, Rogers could potentially set off a scenario that would doom the CBC's Saturday night institution, one that is also very popular among US hockey fans who watch it on the NHL Network.

The scenario, according to Robert Cribb and Chris Zelkovich in today's Star, would have Rogers reclaiming the package of 10 regionally telecast Maple Leafs games currently on Sportsnet's competitor TSN. It would also bid to get the TSN package of national cable games for Sportsnet One.

If TSN were to lose that national cable package, it could be forced to bid for the Saturday night over-the-air package that's now on the CBC and mount it on their CTV network. The CBC would not be able to compete.

"Armed with more channels and platforms than CBC, the private network would almost surely win that battle and end CBC’s five-decades hold on hockey," Cribb and Zelkovich write.

OK, let's back up for a second. First of all, none of this can happen until 2014, when Canadian NHL broadcasting rights expire. A lot can happen between now and then.

For one thing, this sale actually has to go through. Rogers may be in this for real, but minority owner Larry Tannenbaum, who is chairman of MLSE and the Leafs' Governor, has the right of first refusal on the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan shares. He's already got 20.5 percent of MLSE and it's not entirely impossible that he can pull together a syndicate to fulfill his long-standing desire to be the top dog among the partners.

Second, a sale to Rogers must be approved by the NHL Board of Governors. These fellows know what's important, and that's the substantial broadcast revenue they get from the Saturday night broadcasts and the package of playoff games that includes the Stanley Cup Final. Some estimates have put the CBC's rights fee to the NHL for this package at $100 million per season. The governors aren't going to approve any deal for Rogers to buy the Maple Leafs if it will mean the end of that revenue stream. The future of Saturday night hockey network telecasts may not look like the Don Cherry/Ron MacLean/Maple Leafs-dominated program we've come to expect the last few decades -- it may not even be on the CBC -- but you can bet that any potential sale will involve at minimum some firm understanding that guarantees the continuation of network hockey on that traditional night and in the postseason.

And third, as even Cribb and Zelkovich write (although it's buried many paragraphs down in their story), the still-unconfirmed sale doesn't mean the CBC would be out of the picture. Former CBC executive Steve Billinger told Cribb and Zelkovich that the public network could still strike deals with Rogers to maintain a hockey presence, even if it is much diminished. “I envision if the CBC was smart, they’d be on the phone tomorrow having partnership decisions with Rogers," Billinger said. "They probably are."  But the CBC's hockey presence could be more than diminished because Rogers does not at this time have an over-the-air platform for this property.

A deal between the CBC and Rogers, if it comes to that, to keep Hockey Night right where it is now is certainly as conceivable as any of the other scenarios laid out by the industry types with whom Cribb and Zelkovich spoke.

Of course, Leafs Nation is more concerned that a sale to Rogers could turn their heroes into a championship hockey club. But there are no guarantees of that. All one needs to do is look at what has happened to the New York Rangers -- or not happened -- since they were acquired by Cablevision and the Dolan family. That deal was very similar in nature to the one that is being tossed around in Toronto (that is, as much -- if not more -- about acquiring media content than building competitive excellence). The Rangers have been at best a mid-pack team, never advancing beyond the second round. It's a cautionary tale for Toronto fans who have expectations of a new era should the sale to Rogers take place.

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