Prepare for a hockey tsunami

Rogers bets big that Canadians can’t get enough of the NHL

There was excited talk last fall about how drastically Rogers would reshape the landscape of hockey broadcasting, having acquired all national rights and the lion’s share of regional rights to NHL games in Canada. More choice of games, with fewer blackouts, available for viewing on the device of your choosing.

You could be forgiven for taking it with a grain of salt. The NHL has been notoriously rigid on its blackout policies—to the point that fans in the U.S. have sued because the league was blacking out live-streamed broadcasts that might compete with those of TV rights holders.

In Canada, Sportsnet was taking so much abuse over regional TV blackouts that it posted an explanation of the rules on its website, beseeching fans to pin the blame where it belongs.

So fans and critics have been watching closely over the past few weeks as Rogers rolled out its plans for the 2014-15 season. Would the walls around our old viewing habits come down? Has the era of choice truly dawned? None of the announcements was more keenly anticipated than Wednesday’s unveiling of the Canadian version of GameCentre Live, the service through which fans can stream live action on their computers or tablets.

Internet, after all, was where the absurdity of the NHL’s restrictions had reached its apogee. An Oilers game might be airing in Edmonton on regional TV yet blocked from local fans who wished to watch it on their tablets or smartphones—ostensibly to protect the interests of the broadcast rights holders. But it flew in the face of common sense. A whole lot of us owned devices capable of showing live hockey in high definition, and we wanted to watch our favourite teams on them.

Those days are over. Canadian-based viewers who sign up for GameCentre Live will be able to choose from games inside and outside their markets. In all, more than 1,000 will be available through the service, including 110 French-language broadcasts of Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators games. (This will go some distance to quell a nascent uprising among Habs fans west of Quebec, who had been able to watch all of their team’s games by subscribing to RDS, the French-language version of TSN.) National broadcasts controlled by Rogers will be available as part of the deal.

“If you’re a Toronto Maple Leafs fan living in Vancouver, you’ll be able to see all 82 [Leafs] games,” said Keith Pelley, the president of Rogers Media, at a press conference in Toronto. “We wanted to give Canadians as much choice as we can to watch as many games on multiple platforms.”

This is, of course, partly an outcome of Rogers’s position in the Canadian communications market (Maclean’s is owned by Rogers). When you are both the broadcaster of most of the games and the seller of the service through which they are consumed, blackouts don’t make a whole lot of sense.

It’s also about money, in case that needs underlining. A company that shells out $5.2 billion for 12 years worth of rights—TV and Internet both—gets a say in how the product is delivered. And there’s treasure yet to be found in live-streaming: GameCentre Live will cost $199 (existing Rogers customers getting it free for the first three months, while games aired on CBC will still be available for streaming on CBC.ca).

But it’s mainly a nod to the revolution in media consumption habits that no one—not even a $23-billion company—can hold back. A growing number of Canadian are unplugging from conventional TV altogether, opting to buy content from services like the iStore or Netflix and watch it on devices, computers or Apple TV (Pelley noted Wednesday that he expects most GameCentre Live users to receive games not through cellphone networks, with their usage caps, but through Wi-Fi. Which is to say: at home, in the comfort of their living rooms).

Appetite for hockey is as strong as ever. Even as Rogers was preparing this announcement, fans were trading tips on message boards on where to pick up illegal feeds of game broadcasts on the Internet. If cable and wireless providers didn’t give them what they want, it seemed clear they’d get it elsewhere.

Or worse, they’d sue. The recent U.S. court decision green-lighting the fans’ suit against the NHL sent a shockwave through the league and the broadcasting world, highlighting how restrictions we all accepted a few years back look antiquated and monopolistic in today’s multi-platform universe. That might explain why, this season, your TV menu on Saturday nights is going to look like it’s been hit by a tsunami of hockey. There’ll be as many as seven different games to choose from, playing on networks ranging from the CBC to FX Canada.

Even for people with basic cable packages, it’s going to look like a smorgasbord. When coupled with a nearly limitless selection of games to be live-streamed, it might just look like too much hockey.

Then again, we’re Canadian. We should be able to handle it.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Hockey Night in Canada games aired on CBC would no longer be available for free streaming on CBC.ca. A Rogers spokeswoman confirms that they will.




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