It was 1970. Forty-six years later, the biggest roll of the dice in Canadian TV history has come up snake eyes. All seven Canadian teams sit on the sidelines as Rogers Media wraps up the second season of a $5.2-billion, 12-year deal with the NHL.
The Canadian team collapse will cost money, says Sportsnet president Scott Moore.
"There are definitely differences in our ratings expectations that definitely impacts the prices that we charge," he said in an interview.
Last year, for example, first-round playoff games between the Montreal Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators averaged 3.2 million viewers, with one game soaring to 3.763 million. When all Canadian teams were eliminated by the third round, half the audience went with them.
Rogers Media Broadcast President Scott Moore, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman; then-Rogers CEO Nadir Mohamed, Rogers Media President Keith Pelley and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly pose for a photo after announcing a 12-year national broadcast and multimedia agreement on November 26, 2013 in Toronto, Canada. (Getty Images)
In addition to the elimination of the Canadiens, Senators and other Canadian teams, the last-place finish for the Toronto Maple Leafs has also been a blow for Rogers. With little to cheer for in Canada's largest TV market, ratings took a massive hit.
Overnight estimates for last Saturday's "Hockey Night in Canada" broadcast — a Canadian tradition that for decades routinely averaged more than two million viewers — were just 721,000.
Over a 30-week period, ratings for the early game on "Hockey Night in Canada" are down 18 per cent for the season. Later games out west are down 19 per cent on average.
On Sundays, where competition includes powerful U.S. cable draws such as "The Walking Dead," event programming like the Super Bowl and Oscars as well as binge viewing on Netflix, Sportsnet's "Hometown Hockey" is down 42 per cent season-to-season.
Bottom line: for the Rogers deal to work, the Leafs must win.
"The great opium of sports is hope."
— Sportsnet President Scott Moore
"Whether we like it or not in other parts of the country, the Toronto Maple Leafs drive the value of the hockey broadcast ecosystem," said Moore.
Moore speaks with Leafs president Brendan Shanahan regularly and said the team's tear-down approach "has been painful for him, and, frankly, it's been painful for us."
According to a Globe and Mail report last week, Rogers has had to offer free spots to advertisers to make up for failures to reach promised audience targets. These "make-do" spots are cutting into ad revenues across the Rogers Media broadcast system, the Globe said.
"We have ratings guarantees in some of our deals," said Moore, singling out Scotiabank and Samsung as advertisers "who clearly see the value in hockey even without Canadian teams. I won't get into specifics."
"You can't look at sports as a quarter-by-quarter business."
Asked if he would still make the blockbuster NHL rights deal today, Moore said: "In a heartbeat. In an absolute heartbeat."
He pointed to recent news Twitter will begin streaming Thursday night NFL games. With CBS and NBC holding broadcast rights, questions have been raised as to how this will affect the U.S. broadcast ecosystem.
With the NHL deal, Rogers has locked up broadcast and streaming rights across all platforms for another 10 years.
"We control where the games get seen," said Moore. "We can't be blindsided by a digital upstart who wants to overpay for sports rights to grow their overall business."
Rogers will carry playoff games on TV as well as stream them on NHL GameCentre Live and the new Sportsnet Now stand-alone service.
Moore said the biggest challenge with the broadcast deal is the regular ebb and flow of sports.
"It's not as predictable as other parts of the telecom business," he said. "You need to be able to take a long-term look at the property and say 'Where will we be in five years, where will we be in six years?'"
That's not a comfortable position at a public company where reports are made quarterly. Moore's pitch to shareholders is to remember the value in founder Ted Rogers' long-term vision. It took years for the company's gamble on ownership of the Toronto Blue Jays to pay off, he said.
"Look at how it paid off last year and this year," said Moore. "You can't look at sports as a quarter-by-quarter business."
"The great opium of sports is hope," Moore added.
If Toronto and Edmonton, two Canadian teams rebuilding for the future with high draft picks, meet in the Stanley Cup final two years from now, "the tenor of the press reporting will be very, very different, I expect," Moore said.
The NHL playoffs open Wednesday.