What a difference a year makes.
Last April, Scott Moore, president of Rogers’ (TSX:RCI.B) Sportsnet and NHL properties, was trying to put a positive spin on the fact that, for the first time since 1970, not one Canadian NHL team made the playoffs.
Rogers, which a few years earlier paid a record $5.2 billion to lock up the rights to a dozen years of national NHL broadcasts, saw ratings take a punishing body check. Canadian sports fans abandoned hockey telecasts in record numbers and not one of the opening-round series averaged a million or more viewers.
This spring, with days to go in the regular season schedule, five Canadian teams stand poised to make the playoffs: the Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs. Only the Winnipeg Jets and Vancouver Canucks are out of the hunt.
“I’m superstitious, I’m not popping any corks yet,” says Moore, who acknowledges that the Leafs in the playoffs would be money in his bank. They’re the home team in the biggest TV market in the country. In past years, the Leafs have drawn three and even four million viewers for a playoff game.
The last time the Leafs made the playoffs was in 2013, before the Rogers-NHL deal.
With the Leafs having several of the league’s top rookies, including 39-goal scorer Auston Matthews, Moore says the team’s resurgence “is not looking like a one-year thing. We’re seeing it in the ratings.”
Rogers’ ratings for Leafs games are up 27 per cent over last year, while numbers for “Hockey Night in Canada,” seen Saturday nights on CBC through an arrangement with Rogers, are up nine per cent for the early games and six per cent for the later games featuring western teams.
Ratings for Rogers’ “Hometown Hockey” on Sunday nights are up enough for Moore to commit to the coverage throughout next season.
And it’s not just the Leafs’ resurgence driving the gains, says Moore. Regional coverage of Oilers games jumped a whopping 40 per cent this season, while Canadiens games have also seen an increase.
Moore feels Canadian teams will be in the playoff hunt “for years to come,” too, singling out rising stars Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton) and Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary).
That’s good for Rogers’ bottom line. Higher ratings mean higher advertising revenues. Moore says he’s pleased with ad sales so far for the first round of the playoffs.
“We’ve raised rates a couple of times already,” says Moore, admitting that’s a big switch from last playoff season.
Ron MacLean’s role in the ratings resurgence is hard to calculate, says Moore. The longtime “Hockey Night in Canada” host returned to the anchor desk after being replaced for two seasons by George Stroumboulopoulos.
“The timing’s good for Ron and good for us,” says Moore, suggesting improved play by Canadian teams has been a bigger factor in rebounding ratings.
He does see MacLean as a positive addition to what he feels is the best intermission panel in the business: Saturday night hockey experts Kelly Hrudey, Nick Kypreos and Elliotte Friedman.
As for technical coverage of this year’s playoff games, look for more camera angles, says Rob Corte, vice president of Sportsnet and NHL production. Normally, all the bells and whistles come deeper into the playoffs, “but having all those Canadian teams right off the bat calls for more robust broadcasts.”
â€” Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.
Bill Brioux, The Canadian Press